Amid the Trump administration’s idea of ‘alternative facts’ there is one truth that we may find hard to swallow but that we have to face up to. Journalists cannot escape their part in creating the feelings of disillusion and alienation from ‘the elite’ that made Trump such an attractive candidate to many voters.
Personally I am proud to number myself a small part of the group that Trump brands as ‘among the most dishonest people in the world’ but my pride in being a journalist doesn’t blind me to the profession’s failings. And, for anyone feeling a little smug that this is happening over there, I have a single word of warning – Brexit.
Of course the 45th President of the USA and his press secretary Sean Spicer – as well as ‘top Trump aide’ Kellyanne Conway – cannot be allowed to discredit proper reporting by simply branding it as inaccurate or untruthful. They must not be allowed to undermine the business of the President being held to account by claiming that all those who question Trump are working out “an obsession… to delegitimise this president” as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus would have us believe.
The simple truth is, though, that those voters who agree with Trump that the news media are part of the elite that exists in the swamp he is determined to drain, will accept the Spicer/Conway ‘alternative facts’ and willingly believe the reporting of the attendance at the inauguration – and more besides – has been manipulated.
So how did we arrive in this mess? The painful fact is that we have not as journalists done enough to ensure that our reporting has reflected all the voices in society. We have tried to show our understanding of – and improve our reporting around – some of the more obvious fault lines such as ethnicity and gender but I know from journalists’ contributions to an e-book on inclusive reporting that I am editing with my BCU colleague Diane Kemp that even in those areas we are not doing enough. Then there is the whole area of how we fail to give a platform to people from what are politely called ‘disadvantaged areas’. That’s a failure made worse by the fact that newsrooms rarely employ journalists with backgrounds which include direct experience of those areas.
Even more uncomfortably we need to be better at reflecting views which we might find alien to our broadly liberal tastes – and not just on phone-ins where they can be cast as Mr or Mrs Angry.
What is much less clear is how we rebuild trust so that we can go on holding power to account without it sneering at us and using its Twitter feed to bypass us and take the ‘alternative facts’ directly to the people.
Here’s a suggestion for one step in the right direction. News organisations should ensure they hire journalists from the widest range of backgrounds and experiences. While “The proportion of privately educated journalists had risen since 1986 from 49% to 54%. More than half of those with degrees had been to Oxbridge” (as Lee Elliott Major, chief exec of the Sutton Trust points out in the forthcoming book) it’s not surprising that our news coverage fails to reflect all corners of society.