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Public Editor: Shooting the messenger: Trump’s toxic impact on journalism

In just over a week, the United States will go to the polls in an election that has been unprecedented – not just because of the bizarre nature of the campaign, but because of the impact it has had on journalists, both personally and professionally, in their everyday jobs.

Reporters know that, when campaigning, politicians often spin the facts to their advantage, shade the truth and omit the bad news. But this election is different. Members of the media have been forced outside their comfort zone – reporting what each side says – to consider what fairness and balance are really all about.

Of course, as Canadians, we are interested observers rather than participants, but it's hard not to get caught up in the drama, especially when the stakes are so high and the impact so immediate.

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At a glance, the complaints I have received about The Globe's coverage seem fairly typical – claims that we are guilty of favouritism, lack of balance, etc. – except that even here, north of the border, the criticism seems more emotional than usual.

Some readers accuse The Globe of favouring the Democrats' Hillary Clinton. "Where's the balance in the columns?" asks one, while another says: "Your coverage of the U.S. election is very pro-Clinton – Trump's missteps get front-page attention vs Clinton's, not covered or tucked away in a small back article."

But they are a very small handful. Many, many more are anti-Trump. "You are at it again," says one. "You have a two-page spread on the U.S. election, and what do you do? You give fully half the spread to Trump and absolutely nothing to Clinton. I am so sick of the wildly unfair coverage of her."

There is no doubt that Mr. Trump is a newsmaker, but paying more attention to him isn't necessarily a good thing. It just as easily may be hurting his campaign. As for balance, it is not a question of quantity – having the same number of words written about both candidates. True fairness lies in treating them the same – challenging their policies, the spin they put on things and, at times, the outright lies they tell.

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In fact, Globe readers who speak out, whether in complaints to me or letters to the editor, are not only by far anti-Trump, they exhibit a palpable fear of – and distaste for – the man.

A sample from one letter that has been published: "The problem revealed by Mr. Trump's candidacy goes well beyond the candidate himself. He has exposed deeply entrenched misogyny and racism in a large swath of the American electorate, along with a disinterest in facts. This … sets the scene for more subtle and less outrageous demagogues."

Another reader commented: "It's long past time for the media to apply the scrutiny given Hillary Clinton to her opponent, a misogynist, racist, flip-flopping liar. The media should not simply parrot his latest false, misleading comments."

That is quite true; it is vital for democracy that voters know what candidates really stand for and what kind of people they are. In large measure, the coverage both in Canada and in the U.S. has been investigative and tough, shining a very bright light on both candidates, with much of the best work done by print reporters.

But I'm concerned about the response – how willing Trump supporters are to shoot the messenger and how this attitude is ramped up by the man himself.

The American media are under attack. A candidate for the highest office in his country is waging war on journalists, it appears, because he blames them for his sagging poll numbers, their questions about his past and the skeptical reporting that he sees as unfair and unbalanced.

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He has repeatedly threatened the media with legal action (but not taken any) and his Twitter feed is replete with scattergun insults and attacks. He has called journalists and their employers everything from "incompetent … totally discredited … phony" and "a joke" to "dumb as a rock" and a "dopey clown."

He has said reporters "should be fired" and has told his rallies that he is not running against "Crooked Hillary. I'm running against the crooked media." In turn, that crowd has, at times, turned its anger on the reporters covering the event.

Things have got so bad that, this month, police have had to escort reporters out of Trump rallies for safety's sake. As a result, the chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists now says that a Trump presidency "represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history."

It's not just at the rallies. On social media, public vitriol – frankly, hate speech – against some journalists is rampant. A report by the U.S. Anti-Defamation League found that between August, 2015, and last July, no fewer than 19,253 hate messages were sent to American journalists.

All told, some 800 reporters were targeted, a spike in hate speech that Jonathan Greenblatt, the league's chief executive officer, says is "unlike anything we've seen in modern politics."

"A half-century ago," he said, "the KKK burned crosses. Today, extremists are burning up Twitter… We are concerned about the impact of this hate on the ability of journalists to do their job and on free speech."

But what happens if (or when), Ms. Clinton wins – where does the pent-up anger and frustration toward the media go?

Given how much Mr. Trump loves the limelight and the rumours that he plans to launch his own TV network, it may not be going anywhere at all.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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