How Should the Media Cover Trump's Tweets?

The president-elect’s inflammatory remarks on social media could be a distraction—or they could be deadly serious.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Yesterday, uttering the famous last words “F**k the flag tweet,” I entered the fracas over whether knee-jerk journalistic coverage of Trump’s tweets distracts from other, more important stories. “Fellow journalists,” I beseeched, “start doing it right TODAY. F**k the flag tweet. The story is Tom Price/HHS and his threat to health-care access.”

My plea rose from my growing concern with how well Trump works the media; my readings of several related laments, such as this from Jack Shafer; and from having just consumed Sarah Kliff’s fine story on how deeply and broadly Tom Price’s nomination threatens this country’s health-care system. The ensuing discussion took lines made familiar over the last few weeks: Some people cheered me on. Others objected, noting, quite sensibly, that they could very well absorb more than one story a day, thank you.

I found myself agreeing with both sides, and wondering why. Then it struck me that much of the problem—perhaps its root—lies in the mixed public-private nature of the conversations journalists tend to have on Twitter and Facebook. A typical journalist might have anywhere from 100 to 50,000 followers. The journalist might actually know one or two thousand of those followers; a few hundred will be fellow journalists or friends. On a social level, it’s perfectly natural—and hard to fault—that a journalist would  share with those friends and colleagues an initial response, anywhere from amazed to dismayed, to Trump’s latest social-media blast.

But amid this banter, it’s easy for that journalist to forget that any journalist on Twitter or Facebook is not just sharing but defining the news—identifying and framing, for a public with limited time and attention, the day’s most salient and consequential stories. And if a journalist’s reactions to Trump’s latest eruption suggest that the day’s top story is Trump’s outburst  about flag burners or the vote count—rather than his nomination of a savvy, fiercely determined cabinet member whose agenda will reshape the country’s health-care, civil rights, or economy—then the journalist has failed at his or her job.

I’m not sure how to untangle this Gordian knot. No journalist wants to be Trump’s fool —nor a Trumpsplaining egghead. But we need to do better. It might help if, when reading Twitter and Facebook, we keep in mind the mixed public/private nature of the conversations there, and temper our own utterances accordingly. It might help to recognize, meanwhile, that the semi-private expressions of outrage among our peers may not reflect their prime concerns as journalists; as they use one hand to exclaim about Trump’s tweets, they may well be (I sure hope so) using the other to write a substantive story. It might help if, when correcting one another, we don’t make our non-journalist followers feel that their reactions, shared socially rather than as news commentary, are part of the problem. It will definitely help if, when journalists do link to a Trump tweet, they contextualize it—and link to the story his tweet threatens to obscure.

Of course people can carry two ideas in their heads at once, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t tweet about Trump’s often extraordinary tweets. But if you’re a journalist, there is good reason to consider how your quick hot takes on Twitter and Facebook help identify and frame the day’s most important stories. It’s terribly easy to convey the wrong impression—and thereby surrender yet more power to the already too-powerful.