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Washington bureau chiefs discuss new era's impact on journalism

Alumnae panel addresses leaks, tweets and attacks on the media

Three women and one man sit on stage during a panel discussion and smile at the crowd
From left: Moderator Tim Franklin, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page (BSJ73), The New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller (BSJ77), and The Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace (BSJ04)

One year after President Donald J. Trump’s election, three Northwestern University alumnae – all Washington, D.C., bureau chiefs for major media outlets – returned to campus to discuss how political journalism has changed under the new administration.

“The Insiders: Covering Washington Since Trump’s Election” featured Elisabeth Bumiller (BSJ77) of The New York Times, Susan Page (BSJ73) of USA Today and CBS, and Julie Pace (BSJ04) of The Associated Press and CNN. All are graduates of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and professor at Medill, moderated the Nov. 7 panel, attended by 250 people. The discussion touched on factors that differentiate the Trump administration from previous administrations, including the level of access to the president, the quality of information provided by the White House and the amount and validity of information leaking from government sources.

Panelists also discussed what they are doing differently in response to these factors, and they talked about the role of journalism schools, like Medill, in preparing journalists to cover an increasingly polarized world of politics.

Full audio from panel event

How does the Trump administration differ from previous administrations?

One difference in covering this administration is how open it has been, panelists said.

“Trump has been more accessible than any modern president,” said Page, who has covered six White House administrations and interviewed the last nine presidents.

She noted that President Trump engages with reporters in different contexts than previous administrations, chatting as he walks to Air Force One and commenting on Twitter.

The panelists said that while Trump’s tweets occasionally disrupt governing policy, they are a valuable way for journalists and the public to understand the president’s thinking.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a clearer picture of the president’s actual reactions to things,” Page said. “For journalists, it is a huge opportunity.”

“It’s open, but it’s deceiving,” Bumiller added. “Just because you have access to the president and you can talk to him more often doesn’t mean that you actually know what’s going on.”

Pace added that the quantity of the communication does not always translate into quality.

“What he says doesn’t always add up to much,” Pace said, citing occasions when the president referenced an upcoming announcement that never materialized. “Sometimes it seems like he’s just messing with us.”

The journalists discussed the difficult position they are put in when the White House makes inaccurate statements. They said they weigh several arguments each time it happens, debating whether publishing the falsehood – even if only to refute it – gives it further credence.

“There was a debate about, ‘are we repeating a lie and giving credence to a lie by reporting on it?’ Well it’s part of our job to point out when things aren’t true,” Pace said, adding that it’s essential that the falsity of the statement is made clear in the headline and first sentence of the story.

However, the panelists said the decision of whether to directly label untrue claims “lies” is difficult.

“Lying implies motive,” Bumiller said. “It’s not up to me to decide whether he knows that it’s accurate or not. My role is to tell the reader that it is not accurate.”

What are journalists doing differently to avoid the mistakes of the 2016 election coverage and keep pace with the changing nature of Washington, D.C. politics?

In addition to adjusting reporting practices to account for the different communication style of the new administration, the panelists discussed the lessons they learned from the 2016 election when media faced wide criticism for incorrectly predicting Hillary Clinton would win the presidency.

“In 2016, there was this big focus on data journalism,” Bumiller said, citing pollsters’ claims that only data can reveal the truth. “That was the focus in 2016, but that will not happen, I’m certain, in 2020.”

Bumiller added that most organizations are now making a concerted effort to talk to more voters in central states that are often overlooked by major media. Pace emphasized a revived focus on political issues that matter to these voters and a determination to not get wrapped up in the politics themselves.

“We have to break through the noise,” she said, adding that it’s easy to get side-tracked by the president’s latest tweet or other distractions in Washington, D.C.

All three panelists said they’ve increased staff in order to keep up with the fast-paced changes under the new administration.

What will political journalism look like moving forward, and what role do journalism schools like Medill play in preparing journalists to cover an increasingly polarized world?

Asked about the president’s frequent critiques of the media, the panelists emphasized the importance of remaining focused on quality reporting.

“It’s important that we don’t take the bait,” Pace said. “Trump wants us to get into this feud with him, but we shouldn’t parade ourselves as the enemy of Trump or even engage in that conversation with him. Any time we get distracted by that, we are taking our eye off something that is much more important.”

Page raised concern about the rhetoric against journalists and the current Justice Department’s apparent approach to reporters. Citing an increase in the number of leaks from government sources and the importance of the information revealed by those sources, she said there is some uncertainty about the consequences journalists would face if they refused to reveal their sources.

“This Justice Department has not committed to not putting reporters in jail for doing their jobs,” Page said. “So we’ll see what happens with the leaked investigations they are pursuing now and how they choose to prosecute them.”

The panelists agreed that the best defense against attacks on the press is accurate, transparent reporting. Pace referenced the public appetite for verifiable information, evident in the stories that attract the most views.

“This year, our fact checks of presidential speeches are consistently the most read story, more read than the actual story about the speech,” Pace said. “That’s a great credit to readers.”

The panelists emphasized the need for skilled journalists to continue producing quality reporting that the public trusts. They said the press is an essential check on government, and holding public officials accountable requires strong ethics, perseverance and a desire to make a difference in the world by telling hard stories that matter.

They emphasized the importance of schools like Medill in instilling these values in future journalists.

“Medill changed my whole life,” Pace said. “It made me want to think bigger about what I could do, and it made me want to do really powerful and impactful stories.”

Addressing students in the audience, she added, “Medill changed everything for me, and it will do the same for so many of you. You have so many things ahead of you.” 

Sydney Alman, a senior studying journalism and political science who introduced the panel, described the event as inspiring.

"It's incredible to see these women in positions of leadership with major news media," Alman said. "Seeing them reassures me that this is a path I can follow too."