Hostility Towards the Press:
Fight it With Facts, These Journalists Say
The press has served as the unofficial fourth branch of government since America’s beginning. It’s function was never to serve the interests of those in power that it covered, but instead to objectively report on their behavior.
In recent years the relationship between the government and the media has undoubtedly suffered.
The Trump Administration often takes the heat for cultivating this era of bad blood.
In fact, the escalated level of hostility from elected officials towards the press has been dubbed the “Trump effect,” as referred to in this article by HuffPost on Reporter’s Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
The effects of this hostility on journalists range from decreased morale to difficulty acquiring necessary information to actual physical danger, as documented by Reporters Without Borders.
Trump isn’t subtle about his feelings towards the media, and a quick search of the Trump Twitter Archive lays out his many attacks on specific journalists and publications.
Given this environment, reporters must adapt accordingly.
This Q&A with reporter Shawn Musgrave explores his perspective on the matter.
Brooke Williams, Boston University visiting associate professor of the practice, journalism, and freelance journalist and BU alum Shawn Musgrave recount their experiences and offer advice to fellow reporters.
Williams and Musgrave typically work on investigative stories which require reaching out to government agencies for data. Hostility from government sources has been a constant for them, not a new product of the Trump administration.
Adapt to the Environment
“Honestly I don’t know about increased hostility from government sources, I encounter all kinds of opposition to information being given to the press both under the Obama and under the Trump administration at every level of government, federal, state, and local,” Musgrave said.
“If anything I’ve noticed that there are some instances in which government FOIA officers and other people in administrative roles that deal with the media are trying to be more helpful,” Williams said of the cooperation of these agencies.
While reporting, they adopt certain strategies to ensure they receive the necessary information.
“It depends on the context, for freedom of information or public records requests, I know the law well and I assert my rights, and I try and just keep the focus on what my rights are under whatever statute I’m requesting information under,” Musgrave said.
Other cases “just requires being alternately polite and very adamant or finding someone else within a government agency that will speak with me rather than the spokesperson,” Musgrave said.
Respond Productively to Backlash
Usually, once the articles hit the web, backlash ensues.
Williams and Musgrave bring up a popular saying in journalism to describe this trend: “If you’re doing your job, someone is not gonna like it.”
“I encounter hostility basically, you know, almost every time I try to do [reporting]. I focus on investigative journalism so the journalism that I’m doing, someone is going to be unhappy about it in most cases,” Williams said.
On bracing herself for hostility from the subjects of an investigation, who are typically members of the government, “I fact check–literally fact check every single fact in every single story before it is published. And I know the next day whatever they say I can just flip to whatever fact and look at the primary document,” Williams said.
Musgrave takes a similar approach.
“I try and stick to the facts of the story as I find them, I use as many primary sources as I can meaning documents and data that come straight from the people that I’m reporting on, I double down and be as thorough as possible, and if people consider the facts that I’m reporting to be fake, I mean, at a certain point that’s not my problem,” said Musgrave.
It is not uncommon for both reporters to issue a rebuttal when their work is called into question by those they’ve investigated. Williams and Musgrave have published memos to further verify the facts they’ve reported after their subjects deny them.
“My work IS called fake news. Shawn and I are working on an investigation into the DOJ [Department of Justice] and I’d be shocked if it weren’t dubbed ‘fake news’ at some point,” Williams said.
“That’s always been there. I haven’t been reporting for decades and decades but certainly for the period that I’ve been reporting, the idea of [fake news]. It hasn’t necessarily been encapsulated in such a tidy term as ‘fake news’ but that feeling has always been there,” Misgrave said, agreeing.
“Reporters have to grow a thicker skin. We should be addressing substance instead of ‘they dont like us,'” said Musgrave.
“The time is ripe”
As far as the public’s perception of the media, Williams sees things moving in a positive direction.
“There was a time when in the early 2000s when I was first starting out as an investigative reporter in which I hesitated to tell people what I did for a living, like my friends… Because people, their immediate reaction was ‘Oh, like a tabloid?’ and [because of] the general mistrust of the media,” said Williams
“That has actually shifted whereas now, when I tell people what I do, there reaction almost every time is ‘Thank you so much for what you’re doing,'” said Williams.
Musgrave doesn’t worry much about the opinions of others, whether it is those of the government or of the public.
“I think there’s probably upticks and downswings of how prevalent distrust of the media is, there’s been some great research into that and certainly we’re on the uptick in terms of distrust of the media, but that distrust is always going to be there,” Musgrave said, “It’s a great challenge to reporters to try and foster a sense of trust in the media… but we are never going to get to 100 percent, so that worry about public distrust, we should only let that be productive.”
Being a journalist today comes with these challenges, but that doesn’t mean now is a bad time to get involved.
“The time is ripe; this is a perfect time to launch a career as an investigative reporter,” said Williams, mentioning the increase in recent years of jobs and funding for reporters, “This is a heyday for journalism.”