Journalists to discuss the importance of accountability journalism during the Trump presidency

At a time when journalism is under intense scrutiny and the media faces open criticism from President Donald Trump, Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune, says it’s important now more than ever to champion accountability journalism.

“I say that as an enemy of the people,” Smith told the Knight Center. “We have to do more and better in terms of holding people accountable. I can think of no more important conversation to have right now.”

As chair and presenter, Smith will lead the discussion “Accountability Journalism in the Trump Era” on April 21 at the 2017 International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ). Joining him in the discussion will be Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones editor-in-chief; McKay Coppins, staff writer for The Atlantic; Matt K. Lewis, senior columnist for The Daily Beast; and Sopan Deb, general news reporter for The New York Times.

Since leaving Texas Monthly in 2009 to co-found the Texas Tribune, Smith said public service has been the guiding principle of the media organization.

“It’s a fundamental part of democracy — the idea that there’s a free and independent press,” Smith said. “In its absence, democracy falters. I think we understand the stakes of that more than ever.”

In the early years of the Tribune, Smith said he saw an obvious shortage of coverage in Texas that held public officials responsible for their words and actions. Regarding that gap in coverage, Smith wanted the Tribune to step in and provide the public with the information they weren’t getting.

Now, the Tribune boasts more reporters covering its state capitol than any other outlet around the country has dedicated to its own. Because of this, Smith said he’s heard from people about “The Tribune Effect,” where public officials feel bound by their words in fear that a Tribune reporter might catch them going back on their promises.

“Our eyes institutionally and individually are on them and will be on them,” Smith said. “We’ll be watching and we’ll be telling people about it, and if that threat of being found out is enough to motivate people to do the right thing, I’m okay with that.”

Now, as the media’s relationship with the general public has begun to change, Sopan Deb, who will be with Smith on the same panel, says it doesn’t mean journalists should get defensive. Instead, they can only prove their credibility by putting in the work. Deb covered Trump’s campaign for CBS News before joining The New York Times.

“Reporters can control one thing: how they report,” Deb told the Knight Center. “The rest is just noise. When I covered the campaign, I tried my very best to be aggressive and fair, while constantly fact checking … What other people, outside of people at CBS, thought about my reporting didn’t really faze me. I could only control how hard I worked.”

At The Atlantic, staff writer McKay Coppins says its approach in coverage was to always take differing viewpoints seriously. In doing this, he says they aren’t allowing the president to dictate the relationship between the people and the press by playing into the narrative of biased news.

“One of the things I think we [at The Atlantic] have done very well is not treat any segment of voters as some kind of exotic subculture to be gawked at,” Coppins said to the Knight Center. “From across the political spectrum, we tried to see where people were coming from.”

Since the election, Coppins said the sheer amount of coverage and interest in accountability reporting is more than he’s ever seen before.

“It’s been an unusually busy time for political reporters,” said Coppins, who left BuzzFeed News as a senior writer on the politics team in January 2017 to join The Atlantic. “There usually hasn’t been this much to do in the first days and weeks of the Presidency. But the fact that there’s a lot to cover shouldn’t be a deterrent, it should be something that motivates us.”

While not every organization has the resources to commit more reporters to compensate for the volume of coverage, Smith said they can still find other methods and embrace other tools in order to provide accountability journalism for their readers.

“Now is the time to step up to the batters box, and not every organization has the means or the drive to step up, but a lot of people desperately need their outlets to do that.”

Joining Smith, Deb and Coppins will be Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones, and Matt Lewis, senior columnist at The Daily Beast.

For a decade, Jeffery has been editor-in-chief at Mother Jones, which won the Magazine of the Year award from the American Magazine Editors (ASME) in 2017, a year that it published extensively on Trump and produced investigative pieces on private prisons. “The media is under attack. Whether we are magazines that specialize in news and politics or whether we are magazines that delight and distract, we’re gonna need both and I really hope that we all stick together in the time to come,” Jeffery said upon accepting the award.

Lewis, also a political commentator at CNN, recently left the Daily Caller for The Daily Beast. Concerning this change, he told Erik Wemple at the Washington Post: “My tack [sic] is going to be to do two things: One, to present conservative ideas to a mainstream audience that is compelling and explanatory and that other is to hold Donald Trump accountable.” In 2016, he published the book “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)”. He also maintains a blog and hosts a podcast.

The 18th International Symposium on Online Journalism will take place in Austin from April 21 to 22. Registration is now open and seats fill quickly, so sign up today.

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