This time, journalists will stand up to Trump (no, really)
Matt Carlson

"How do we deal with Trump’s lying?” It was October 2023, and the news editors sat around the public-radio newsroom conference table debating how best to cover Donald Trump in the 2024 election.

The top editor raised the question, posing it to the room and waited as silence prevailed.

The question was surprising, in a way: How are we nearly a decade into Trump at the center of the political spotlight and still grappling with the basic question of how to cover him, his outlandish behavior, his constant lies and derogatory statements, and his refusal to acknowledge legitimate democratic processes? But perhaps it is not surprising given how Trump short-circuits journalistic logic.

And many expect that news coverage of Trump will pretty much fall into the same rut in 2024.

But our prediction for 2024 is that there will actually be many prominent examples of journalists challenging Trump, holding him to account, and calling out his nonsense. Journalists will find their voice — their moral voice — this time around to a much greater extent than before.

This prediction comes from our own ideas of how Trump should be covered from our recent book News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture.

We draw from the lessons of 2016 and 2020 to predict 2024 coverage. There are many reasons to be pessimistic: Journalism, after all, is not prone to rapid change and adaptation.

But we are also optimistic because of how journalists broadly have responded to Trump’s insurrectionist tendencies, showing a newfound willingness to push back.

And we take it as a positive sign that many journalists — including those public radio reporters we talked to — are already openly contemplating how to avoid what happened before in mishandling Trump’s lies and racism.

In our book, we call for journalists to find their moral voice in combating Trump. But we’re not talking here about a partisan response; rather, it’s about recognizing that journalists share the same space as all of us, and that they have a responsibility to uphold the larger, communal good.

Particularly when autocratic risks to democracy are so high, there is no detached place to report on; we are all affected by the erosion of institutional norms and democratic backsliding.

The moral voice requires journalists to stand up to abuses of power, to call out lies and racism, to protect norms of democracy and civil society, and to do so in solidarity with their audiences.

And we think that strong examples of this kind of moral voice will beget more examples and embolden the journalistic ranks to stand up for the public good. We predict that the 2024 news coverage will feel different.

We could be wrong, of course. Indeed, early on, we saw evidence that the temptation to fall back on old routines of balanced detachment is very strong.

For example, CNN in May offered Trump an exclusive town hall event, carefully screening audience members and banning any negative attacks.

The incident received scathing criticism, as Trump exploited the platform to deny the 2020 election results. As Oliver Darcy, CNN’s own media reporter, wrote:

"CNN aired it all. On and on it went. It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage.

And [CNN’s Kaitlin] Collins was put in an uncomfortable position, given the town hall was conducted in front of a Republican audience that applauded Trump, giving a sense of unintended endorsement to his shameful antics. CNN publicized all of it with little pushback.”

Nonetheless, as media watchers ourselves and professors who teach students, consult with journalists, and study the industry, we predict that the journalism profession is finally ready to cover this election differently. At least we hope so.

This prediction was created along with Sue Robinson, Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Seth C. Lewis, Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.