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Covering Trump in 2024

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Ever since Donald Trump first became a political candidate back in 2015, journalists have struggled to cover him in a way that serves news consumers.

From the moment he announced his first run for president, Trump gobbled up a lot of press attention simply by being outrageous and entertaining. The first broad critique of journalists was that the coverage of Trump was uncritical and disproportionate.

By the 2020 election, after the start of the pandemic, analysis from this office questioned whether Trump's press briefings on the pandemic should be aired live by NPR and whether narratives of election fraud should go unchallenged.

Now, Trump is marching toward his third Republican nomination for president, and once again the press is adjusting to his increasingly bold promises to undermine democracy itself. This time around, Trump is even more complicated. He's facing 91 criminal charges, and a challenge to his right to be on the Colorado ballot that is under consideration by the Supreme Court and could have national repercussions.

There have been many audience questions and concerns about NPR's approach and today we address one. A listener challenged NPR's description of Trump's victory in the Iowa Caucus as "decisive," citing the low turnout.

Read on to see why journalists at NPR have characterized Trump's early win as conclusive.

In addition to covering the nominating process, journalists have to translate the political rhetoric into possible policy implications. If reporters have learned anything in the last two election cycles, it's that, while Trump is often playful and hyperbolic, he also intends to make good on his promises. Showing news-weary consumers how his promises will play out is more important than covering the horse race.

So, bring on your questions about NPR's coverage of the presidential election.

We also highlight a recent Code Switch episode that takes a historical look at Black dating. It's fun. — Kelly McBride

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Describing Trump's early wins

Terry Nelson wrote on Jan. 19: Twice this morning (01/19/2024) I heard NPR reporters refer to the results of the Iowa caucuses as a "decisive" victory for the former president. Words make a difference and the definition of decisive is "settling an issue; producing a definite result". I fear that the media has failed to learn the lessons from 2017 and by using a term like "decisive" to describe the former president's victory in Iowa gives him far more power than explaining that the victory comes from 51% of a 14.5% turnout of Republican voters in the state of Iowa, a 45% decline from the last presidential cycle. NPR reporting used to be better than this.

NPR journalists described former President Donald Trump's win in Iowa as "decisive" in several places. In a Jan. 19 story about white evangelical Christians supporting Trump, Morning Edition host A Martínez had this introduction: "White evangelical Christians show no signs of backing away from former President Donald Trump. That appears to be at least one takeaway from this week's Iowa Republican caucuses, where the former president won a decisive victory over several challengers."

During a 9 a.m. newscast also on Jan. 19, NPR newscaster Korva Coleman said, "Trump is looking to build on his decisive victory this week in the GOP Iowa caucuses."

NPR newscaster Dave Mattingly reported on that same day: "Former President Donald Trump is coming off a decisive win in this week's Iowa caucuses."

In an email, Martínez told us Trump had 2,222 more votes than all of the other candidates combined. "He beat his closest competitor 51% to 21%. He more than doubled his closest competitors' vote total," he said. "The listener seems to be saying that a 14% voter turnout somehow could mean that there may be tens of thousands of non-Trump votes that were never cast when it's more than likely that he would have won by a more decisive margin as the counted numbers clearly indicate."

Martínez continued, "Does calling it decisive give Trump more power? The numbers show that he already had that power and no adjective 'gives him far more power' than what the numbers and margin of victory in Iowa show. He also had that power over Iowa in 2020 when he had a 'decisive' win over Biden 53% to 45% and in 2016 when he had an even more 'decisive' win over Clinton 51% to 42%."

Mattingly said in an email that the word "decisive" was meant to convey that Trump's Republican win in the Iowa caucuses was record-setting — "a 30-point margin over his closest competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis," he said. Mattingly added that the word was used to describe the GOP results by other media outlets as well, including the Associated Press, The Washington Post, Politico, ABC News and U.S. News & World Report.

The New York Times called Trump's win an "overwhelming victory" and said the former president "crushed" challengers Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

"Obviously, the sub-zero temperatures in Iowa that day held down participation," Mattingly said. "But my job is to report the results of the caucuses, regardless of turnout."

Yes, a relatively small number of Iowans came out to support Trump in their state's caucus, the process by which candidates gain their party's nomination. Even so, in Iowa, Trump's victory was indeed commanding. We understand that words hold power and have consequences when used inappropriately or imprecisely, especially in an election year. But we don't find that NPR made any missteps in describing Trump's win in Iowa. — Amaris Castillo

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

'The Lonesome Hearts of 1937'

NPR's Code Switch released a special episodefor Black History Month and Valentine's Day called "The Lonesome Hearts of 1937." Co-hosts B.A. Parker and Gene Demby took listeners back to 1937, with the aid of audio storyteller Nichole Hill, to understand what Black dating was like then, during the Great Migration. Listeners get to hear personal ads from The Washington Afro-American of Black folks searching for love — and a fun exercise in which Parker is matched with men who submitted ads to the paper. The resulting podcast episode is rich with historical context, and a dynamic exploration of how the ages in which we live impact what we look for in a partner. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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