Joyce Terhaar

How should journalists cover this unreal presidential campaign? With strong values.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gives a speech on the economy after touring Futuramic Tool & Engineering, in Warren, Mich., Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gives a speech on the economy after touring Futuramic Tool & Engineering, in Warren, Mich., Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. AP

Journalists have raised a startling question in recent weeks: What place do career long standards of balance and objectivity have in covering a political campaign that includes behavior unlike anything we’ve seen in a presidential candidate?

It’s a conundrum faced daily by Bee editors Scott Lebar and Nathaniel Levine as they try to balance play of stories coming from the campaign trail in the printed edition. Online, it’s a fire hose of stories breaking throughout the day, with decisions that must be made about what to emphasize in emailed newsletters that reach tens of thousands of readers, in our Top Stories play and in breaking news alerts.

Balance sometimes is about volume. And there’s no question Republican candidate Donald Trump has attracted far more media coverage throughout his campaign than his GOP opponents in the primary and Democrat Hillary Clinton since the political conventions last month.

Political journalists committed to accountability cannot simply ignore a major party presidential candidate who just since his nomination:

▪ Denigrated a Gold Star family whose son was killed while serving in the U.S. military.

▪ Refused for several days to endorse the top politicians in his own party in their primary races (House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. John McCain of Arizona).

▪ After the Democratic National Committee’s emails were hacked, suggested that Russia engage in cyber espionage to influence U.S. political elections: “Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find (Clinton’s) 33,000 emails that are missing – I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

▪ Makes comments off the cuff that are sometimes inflammatory and sometimes ambiguous and so potentially dangerous. One of the more recent firestorms of reaction was to his comment to supporters that if Clinton is elected and appoints judges, there’s “nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people maybe there is, I don’t know.” That comment suggested to some that he was inciting gun owners to action and maybe even violence, a concern he later denied and supporters called ridiculous.

“Inadvertently or purposefully he is saying outrageous and provocative things” that need to be reported, despite concerns about balance, Managing Editor Lebar said. “To talk about having a different standard because the candidate is behaving this way is ludicrous.”

From where I sit, volume in this case is not about partisanship. The unexpected, after all, is news, and Trump’s comments and behavior have broken societal and political norms almost since he declared his intention to run.

But it’s a legitimate concern – voiced to me by some readers and within our newsroom – that if one candidate dominates the news cycle because of behavior that concerns voters of all political stripes, the other candidate is sometimes out of the public eye. After more than two decades of sometimes intense public scrutiny, Clinton already is a known political quantity. Yet to truly serve voters, journalists need to be digging deep into behavior, policy and political decisions by each candidate right up until election day.

Many journalists have declared their intention to do so. When Trump banned The Washington Post from covering his rallies, Executive Editor Marty Baron tweeted “The Post will continue to cover Donald Trump as it has all along – honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly.”

Political reporters have pressured Clinton on social media for avoiding news conferences and media outlets have been as quick to fact check her statements as those from Trump. In Clinton’s recent interview with Fox News Sunday about her use of a private email server as secretary of state, she said FBI “Director (James) Comey said my answers were truthful and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people.” Reporting showed Comey was characterizing only Clinton’s answers to the FBI, not her public comments; that statement earned her Politifact’s famed Pants on Fire designation. (Just in August, Trump has earned five of those designations to Clinton’s one).

What might be most extraordinary this campaign cycle is the opinion published voicing concern about Trump’s mental health. Steven Hayes called Trump “crazy” in the conservative publication the Weekly Standard, citing Trump’s implication that Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, was involved in the assassination of JFK. Others including Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program have voiced similar concerns.

“It has come to this: Critics are calling Donald Trump crazy, and he’s calling Hillary Clinton the devil,” Fox News’ Howard Kurtz wrote, saying such commentary is itself crazy. “Most. Bizarre. Campaign. Ever.”

Earlier this month Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times wrote, “Do normal standards apply?” for reporters covering Trump. “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.”

Rutenberg wasn’t advocating that journalists ignore their values but rather that they be true to the public and to the facts. That is good advice for political journalists during this highly charged campaign, particularly given the opinion that is driving the national conversation.

“We need to hold all candidates accountable for their positions, impromptu statements, collection of political money and, yes, their temperament,” said Amy Chance, The Bee’s senior editor for politics. “We need to check facts and vet stances. If we do that well, voters will have what they need to make an informed decision.”

Our journalistic credibility is on the line. Journalists who understand our vital role in a civic democracy will respond with the highest of standards – a commitment to truth telling that includes detailed fact checking, stringent accountability and exhaustive reporting of decisions and behavior.