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The 2016 Presidential Coverage Balancing Act: How Trump’s Campaign Tests the Standard of Fairness

By Larry Margasak
Larry Margasak, a retired Associated Press reporter, examines the challenge to journalistic fairness and balance created by Donald Trump.

There’s one metric that illuminates the coverage of this year’s presidential campaign like no other: Republican Donald Trump has been the subject of far more negative stories than Democrat Hillary Clinton. If you used the language of sports reporting to describe this difference, you might even call it a blowout.

This mismatch needs further study. How should the news media keep campaign coverage fair and balanced when one candidate spews out a dizzying array of allegations — and sometimes, outright falsehoods — about Muslims, Mexicans and women, among others?

Clinton has had plenty of negative coverage herself, as journalists offered readers and viewers volumes of reports about her use of a private email server while at the State Department and investigated her meetings with donors to the Clinton Foundation while secretary of State, among other things.

But we’re talking about score-keeping here. You need only to look at the fact-checks from the presidential debates and other campaign appearances to see how Trump gets far more negative points than his rival.

As an example, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column rates candidates’ statements for truthfulness. False statements are awarded Pinocchios — from one (“some shading of the facts”) to four (“whoppers”). Four days before the election, the column’s primary author, Glenn Kessler, counted up the four-Pinocchio ratings: The score was 59 (Trump) to 7 (Clinton). Further, he said Trump had earned as many four-Pinocchio ratings in this campaign alone as all other Republicans (or Democrats) combined in the past three years. Trump’s average Pinocchio rating was 3.4; Clinton’s was 2.2.

“The concept of balance and equal coverage has been sorely tested this year,” said Linda Kramer Jenning, who teaches journalism at Georgetown University. Journalists don’t have the right calculus yet, she added, and they need to “keep working on charting a course that safeguards basic principles of fairness while also addressing the reality of a candidate like Trump.”

Jenning and three other journalism experts contacted by the News Literacy Project responded to questions about the difficulty of providing honest, fair and balanced coverage when one candidate wanders far from the political template that journalists are accustomed to seeing.

“Journalists should not be thinking, ‘Oh, we wrote a negative story about Hillary Clinton. Let’s now find one about Trump,’” said Alicia Shepard, a former ombudsman for NPR. She said stories should be written or broadcast to inform voters, “not to maintain a count.” The job of a journalist, she added, “is to inform, not to be a stenographer.”

Michael Getler, the ombudsman at the Public Broadcasting Service, said he wasn’t “a big fan of ‘balance.’”

“I think fairness and accuracy are much better yardsticks, and most people can tell unfairness in news reporting when they see or hear it,” he added. (A former reporter, editor and ombudsman for The Washington Post, Getler said he was commenting in his personal capacity, not as a PBS representative.)

Richard Prince, whose blog, Journal-isms, examines diversity in the news business, said, “One of the biggest problems is what has become known as ‘false equivalence’ — the idea that all untruths or missteps are equal, when they are not.”

So how did we get to this explosion of Trump negatives?

During the primaries, he was a novelty candidate — a reality TV star who could call into any news outlet and, usually without challenge, make outrageous yet newsworthy statements. The self-proclaimed multibillionaire, who brags about his business acumen, didn’t have to spend money on television ads to get his views across — and each appearance was a ratings bonanza. As Leslie Moonves, the chairman of the board, president and CEO of CBS, noted at an industry conference in February, Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

The news media eventually woke up to this tactic, and Trump faced the critical coverage that should be applied to any presidential candidate. Along with that wake-up call came real-time, mostly negative fact-checks, in stories and during live campaign events, along with examinations of his professional and personal history.

Among them: a series of reports by The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold on Trump’s foundation and charitable giving (including at least one instance when the businessman sought credit for supporting a charity to which he had not donated) and, thanks to a New York Times scoop, the revelation that Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns. That deduction alone may have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for as many as 18 years.

The proliferation of social media guaranteed that fact-checking would be more vigorous than ever in 2016, no matter who the candidates were, and that relying only on next-day fact-checks would be so “yesterday.” But what couldn’t be known before the campaign was the volume of Trump’s proven falsehoods. And as news organizations caught on, they were ready to use all their resources.

On Sept. 26, as the first debate between Trump and Clinton was about to begin, The New York Times noted that 18 reporters were standing by to provide fact-checks. Their coverage specialties included national security, foreign policy, the economy, Clinton’s State Department emails, immigration, the FBI, guns, terrorism, the environment and climate change, health care, the Supreme Court, constitutional issues and the White House.

Trump’s highly negative scorecard doesn’t mean that Clinton has gotten a free ride. As an example, The Associated Press reported in August: “More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It's an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.” The story went on to explain what was not included in the count and said the examination covered only the first half of Clinton's tenure as secretary of State.

She also has been taken to task for mischaracterizing FBI Director James Comey’s comments about State Department emails on her private server. During her July 31 appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” she asserted: “Director Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people — that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.”

That, according to Kessler, was a four-Pinocchio statement: “Clinton is cherry-picking statements by Comey to preserve her narrative about the unusual setup of a private email server.” His Fact Checker column went on to note that Comey had told Congress, “We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI” — but added that when asked at a House hearing whether Clinton had lied to the American public, Comey said, “That’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. I can speak about what she said to the FBI.”

There are several reasons for the imbalance in coverage of the two candidates, according to the experts consulted by NLP. Much less was known about Trump than Clinton, who has been a public figure for nearly three decades; also, Trump’s extensive unscripted taunts and tweets made him much better copy.

“He demands intense coverage because much of what he says has not been said before," Getler said.

Jenning cautioned that while journalists now have the tools to do nearly instant fact-checks, it’s more important than ever to be careful with their research and make sure the checks give proper context. “If that means not every utterance gets checked in the original campaign story, it’s better to wait for the updated story than to risk fact-checking that isn’t 100 percent solid,” she said.

Jim Rutenberg, the media columnist for The New York Times, captured the dilemma on Aug. 8, when he boiled down the issue that journalists are grappling with: “Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?”

After the dizzying presidential campaign of 2016, answers to those questions may begin to emerge.