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Trump trial coverage

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

The news media face a number of temptations while covering the criminal trial of former President Donald Trump, including dwelling on salacious details, overdramatizing insignificant moments, and getting distracted by out-of-court behaviors that have no bearing on the case.

NPR's audience expects public radio to rise above those pitfalls. Even though NPR's reporting is vastly different from much of the commercial media, we've received a number of emails about coverage of Trump's criminal trial in New York.

In the trial, which started April 22, Trump faces charges of falsifying business records to cover up payments to stop Stormy Daniels from selling her story of a sexual encounter with him. Given past criticisms that Trump manages to garner disproportionate attention with his outlandish statements, we set out to explore NPR's strategy to contextualize the courtroom proceedings, as well as his out-of-court behavior. We address two audience letters, one urging precision in describing the legal case and one cautioning NPR to consider whether Trump's out-of-court proclamations are relevant to the coverage.

We asked the NPR editor leading the trial coverage to explain his team's strategy for sticking to the issues that are most relevant to people trying to understand the legal developments and political implications, which are particularly important given Trump's current bid for the presidency. Read on to see what we learned.

We also spotlight two examples of solid news coverage from NPR. The first story highlights the economic outlook for students who choose trade school over college. The second story is one where NPR takes a look at its own standards. — 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.

Covering Trump's criminal trial

Richard M. Rubin wrote on April 21: NPR's news reporting about the current trial of Mr. Trump gives an incomplete encapsulation of what it is about. The on-air reporter usually says something like, "Mr. Trump is accused of paying a porn star to cover up an extramarital affair." In fact, Mr. Trump is accused of falsifying business records to influence the 2016 presidential election. By emphasizing the salacious aspect of the case, your reporters give the public a misleading impression of the seriousness of the charges.

Allyson Smith wrote on April 19: Listening to the [Morning Edition] show this morning, and regarding a piece about Trump's court case, you allowed him an audio clip, claiming that his case is a scam essentially. Why not simply have a reporter state that this is his claim? By allowing this, along with no verification of his statement, it appears to validate his claim.

After the first day of the criminal trial, Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart begged the news media to avoid turning the trial into a circus.

"Perhaps if we limit the coverage to the issues at hand and try not to create an all-encompassing spectacle of the most banal of details, perhaps that would help," Stewart said. No NPR clips were used in Stewart's monologue, which largely focused on cable news. He went on to say, "If the media tries to make us feel like the most mundane bullshit is earth-shattering, we won't believe you when it's really interesting."

By focusing on legal analysis, chief Washington editor Krishnadev Calamur told us, NPR journalists want to make clear how unprecedented this is. "A former president has never been on trial, and a person who may be the next president has never been on trial. ... I can't emphasize enough how consequential that is."

Of course, this is not the only legal battle Trump is currently involved in, and NPR is working to cover each. Calamur said the journalists try to include news updates about each case within the context of the other legal proceedings.

To answer these audience questions, we reviewed stories from the last four weeks specifically about Trump's criminal trial in New York.

Ahead of the trial, NPR reported Trump's verbal attacks on the judge and prosecutors in the case, the terms of a gag order to prevent him from doing so, and updates on the trial's date. The journalists reported about the jury selection, and how that process works with a defendant who is famous. In trial coverage so far, NPR has focused on each side's case, witness testimony and the judge's recent order requiring Trump to pay $9,000 for violating the gag order.

NPR strives to use language that conveys the full details of Trump's charges in the trial, Calamur said.

"If I purely say this is an election interference case, it doesn't really talk about what the mechanism of the election interference was," he said. What prosecutors have alleged "is that he paid to keep an affair with a porn star quiet so that it would not derail the 2016 campaign. ... I understand those are salacious details, however, they're also part of the story."

We didn't find examples where NPR made light of the case's crude details.

During the segment on jury selection on April 19th's Morning Edition (which Smith, the audience member, referenced), NPR played a soundbite of Trump in its opening to the story: "Justice is on trial. You know the whole world is watching this New York scam."

More than two minutes later, Washington desk reporter Ximena Bustillo offered context about how Trump was feeling. "You have to remember, he's not really happy to be here," she said. "He has been arguing that this trial has been interfering with his ability to campaign. He is running for the 2024 presidential race, and he's required to be here in court when it is in session four days a week."

Calamur cited the principle of fairness, when asked about NPR's strategy in quoting Trump outside the trial. "In the interest of being fair to all parties involved, we've got to give him the right to defend himself," and also "provide context to the audience. ... I think an unchallenged assertion is a bigger problem than the soundbite we allow."

While the segment did offer further context about Trump's perspective, it didn't come until much later in the story. It may be better to paraphrase Trump's responses unless they are new or revelatory, and explain that the court is proceeding the same as it would for any other criminal defendant.

It's fine to note the circus atmosphere. It's another thing to dwell on it, or let it distract from the important issues at hand.

Given this tension, it would be helpful for audiences to hear reporters or hosts explain why they are noting the unusual atmosphere of the trial. For instance, the Morning Edition story cited above came at the end of jury selection. The quote from Trump, describing the trial as a "scam" was part of the introduction, and came right before a two-way interview with Bustillo, the reporter who had been at the courthouse most of the week.

Host A Martínez's first question to her was broad, "What can you tell us about the jury selection?" Here's a portion of how she answered, "One thing that has been really interesting is seeing the diverse swath of New Yorkers share details about themselves with some lighthearted moments ahead of a very serious trial. One juror, when asked if she knew any lawyers, she said that she dated one and the relationship ended, quote, 'fine.' Another insisted that he uses a flip phone so he doesn't watch podcasts."

The broad lead-in question failed to tell the audience what the interview was really about, which was how the court managed to identify impartial jurors in this high-profile trial. If either the lead-in question or the reporter's first response could have identified that issue, the information that followed wouldn't have seemed random.

Such descriptions pull the curtain back on journalistic intentions, especially when details may be interpreted as entertaining rather than important.

This early story was one of the only moments when we thought NPR's reporting could have included more of the legal issues, as well as a bit more of an explanation of what information the story intended to impart. But overall, NPR's reporting, especially Bustillo's, has been solid. — Emily Barske Wood

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 'toolbelt generation'

In a digital story, NPR reporter Windsor Johnston explored the various reasons young workers, especially those of Generation Z, are ditching college diplomas for high-paying jobs that don't require significant education debt as a barrier to entry, like HVAC repair and installation, electricians or solar panel installers. Those Johnston interviewed explained the trend as well as the stereotypes the workers face. The reporting was informative and broke down generalizations about the blue-collar workforce. — Emily Barske Wood

How NPR describes war

On many topics, the Public Editor team has called for more transparency about NPR's language and journalistic choices. We believe this is key to audience trust, especially when covering intensely divisive topics, like the Israel-Hamas war. In fact, in a recent Public Editor column about coverage of the war, we recommended that NPR find ways to explain that its editorial choices are made with accuracy and fairness in mind. Last week, All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro interviewed NPR managing editor for standards and practices Tony Cavin about his language guidance on the terms of war, including how NPR applies the word, "genocide." The conversation was informative, and we appreciate the decision to let the audience in on these choices. — Kelly McBride

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. 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, X, formerly known as Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

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

Copyright 2024 NPR

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