Journalists in America, especially those covering the White House, are facing a new reality, as Donald Trump’s first month in office has already shown. Assistant Professor John Drew and Professor Paul Thaler in the Department of Communications at Adelphi, are ready to prepare the next generation of reporters to navigate this changing field of journalism.
Social media has been ascending as a journalistic tool for the past decade, but it’s changed the field in a number of ways: Today, many use social media as their primary source of news; editors and journalists use it to find news and gauge what people are talking about; and the president uses it to bypass the press completely.
In Drew’s Social Media class, the constant presence of social media in American life is something that he helps students understand. In fact, one of the first things he does with his class is asks them to pull out their phones and delete social media apps for an entire week.
“When one critically studies social media platforms, you quickly learn about their profound ability to divert human attention, at least in this country, towards frivolity and inaction,” says Drew. “Rarely do my students rise to this challenge, but the exercise starts a pretty profound dialogue about how tethered we are. Recognizing this socio-technological reality is the first step, I think.”
Social media’s omnipresence has served as a platform for journalists and citizen journalists alike to share breaking news immediately as it happens. As more people turn to social media as their primary source of news, we will continue to see the lines between citizens and journalists blur, says Thaler. And as more turn to social media to learn about and engage with the news, Thaler sees increased interest and activism among young people on social media as a good outcome for journalism. Creating a better conversation between the people and the press allows the press to amplify the voice of the people.
“The press is there to speak truth to power, and journalists should be speaking forcefully these days, empowered by hundreds of thousands of Americans taking on an activist role,” Thaler says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if journalism programs get more applications as we see more young people getting really engaged in this political process.”
Though social media has been part of both journalism and politics for some time, Trump’s use of social media is a use that is unprecedented in the office of the president. Studying his use of social media, as well as the effects it had on the campaign, will prove to be a significant part of journalism education in the coming years.
“It seems Trump is trying to go around traditional journalism. With over 20 million followers, he feels he can bypass the media,” says Thaler, who teaches Free Speech and Democracy. “That should make the press more diligent. Part of free speech is the press; it’s an extension of our voices.”
This shift toward instant communication between the president and the people isn’t something traditional media are well-equipped to deal with. Part of the press’s role in covering the government has been to fact-check and to provide context and explanations. Tweets leave little time for journalists to do such work, which makes learning more about the new tools of the trade even more important for journalism students.
“It cannot be understated how much the mainstream media is struggling to respond and report on Donald Trump’s erratic and cavalier Twitter behavior,” says John Drew, who believes Trump’s bypassing of traditional White House press has already had significance consequences. “Take, for example, Trump’s tweets threatening tariffs against products made in Mexico. At one point the Mexican peso had lost 16 percent of its value against the dollar since his election victory.”
There is much to be seen in how the struggles between the press and the president will play out in the coming four years. But one thing is for certain: the journalism of the future is going to be faster, more personal and even more important.
“I think, if nothing else, Donald Trump’s presidency will teach us that we cannot remain inactive and take basic democratic rights—like the right to be heard—for granted,” says Drew. “Injustice hurts, and it feels to me that the fields of journalism and education have their work cut out for them in the years to come.”
“Academics, as well as journalists, are still trying to figure it all out—the new administration and the way it deals with the press and public, and how it communicates to the citizenry,” agrees Thaler. “I think there are absolute challenges ahead, and I think it’s more important than ever that journalism does its job, keeps a watchful eye over this administration, and challenges it when it needs to be challenged. Journalism is the voice of the people, and now more than ever, we need to keep an eye on arguably the most powerful man on the face of the earth.”