4th Estate Crisis: Spin & Substance in the Post-Trump Media Landscape

President-elect Donald Trump will do something new later today: he will hold a press conference. For those of you counting at home, it will not only be his first press conference since the November 8th election, but the first one he’s held since July.

Although Trump has continued to make news with unprecedented frequency, recent presidents-elect have typically held at least weekly press conferences to discuss the transition and take questions from the press.

That has not been the case for our nation’s 45th president.

Although famous for his near-constant contact with New York tabloid reporters, Trump is—as he did throughout his campaign—trumpeting his message directly to the American public.

Instead of holding the customary post-election press conference, Trump took to YouTube in late November. And rather than basing its coverage on a traditional announcement with questions and answers to be analyzed, interpreted, and reported on, the media was forced to cover the simplistic video — something many of us could scrutinize on our own.

In a continual refusal to filter his announcements through the magnifying glass of the news media, Trump feeds the 24/7 news cycle with tweets and passing remarks that both control the message and confound it. The reality is that it’s not just the press who Trump’s Twitter feed takes by surprise: incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer admitted last week that even he doesn’t know what the president-elect will tweet.

While this guerrilla-style communications strategy may be rousing consumers and even news creators, it also risks creating a more fractured media environment.

Trump’s team can’t stay on message because they don’t know what the message is. Likewise, reporters are forced to ping pong between covering the official announcements they receive and reporting on Trump’s ever-surprising tweets—all while grappling with the crushing burden of delivering the news in real-time.

The cauldron of constant, unpredictable communications brews tabloid-style news stories, with headlines focused on Trump’s tweets or passing remarks—stories spotlighting tweets or quotes whose substance sometimes go unchecked until deep within the story, or even until the next news cycle.

And as the press unwillingly becomes an echo chamber for presidential tweets, its credibility has also reached record lows. According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, just 16 percent of Americans have measurable confidence in the national news media. (By comparison, 19 percent have a large amount confidence in the financial industry.)

Making matters worse, of course, is the fake news that has permeated our collective conscious. Hoax stories have outperformed mainstream news on social media, and nearly a quarter of Americans admit to having shared a fake news story online, according to the Pew Research Center.

There is no doubt that the mainstream media will be looking to use today’s press conference to reinforce its traditional role as a watchdog and gatekeeper of spin and substance. But if 2016 showed us anything, it’s that the times have changed for all content creators—whether we write the news, react to it or just share perspectives on Facebook. We all have an obligation to actively question what we read, see, and hear.

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