How should the media cover Donald Trump in 2024? We asked the experts

donald trump pointing
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, a great many newsrooms that had been lulled into thinking the election was all but a “blue” formality suddenly found themselves staring into a harsh new “red” light. 

It’s well-documented that major news organizations were way off the mark in calling the 2016 presidential election—so much so it prompted a reckoning within the industry about how journalists should cover the political horse race while ensuring the issues voters care about remain front and center. 

Seven years later, how should the media cover Trump—again a candidate for president, but now facing a slew of state and federal charges—in the 2024 election? Northeastern experts say journalists should seek a better balance of issues-based reporting and tread carefully when it comes to covering defendant Trump in the context of the upcoming election.

‘Not the odds, but the stakes’

Invoking the prominent journalist and media critic Jay Rosen’s credo of “not the odds, but the stakes,” Peter Mancusi, an associate teaching professor of journalism at Northeastern and former editor and member of the “Spotlight Team” at The Boston Globe, says that coverage of Trump and the 2024 election should focus more on what’s at stake for democracy, and less on the candidates’ chances of winning. 

In other words, Mancusi agrees with the popular critique of the media that emerged post-2016: that there was an excess of horse race coverage, which experts say diminishes the public’s knowledge of substantive issues and sows distrust. According to one analysis, matters of policy accounted for just 10% of overall coverage during the 2016 cycle. Additional research suggests that in the lead-up to the election major media publications covered Trump far more favorably despite his low polling initially, which helped propel him in the polls.

Meg Heckman, an associate professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern, says that too much attention on the odds and, by extension, the oddsmakers can be problematic in 2024. As it pertains to Trump, it risks further “normalizing” the former president—a tension that many journalists felt early in the 2016 cycle that became the source of much handwringing in press, she says.

Heckman and Mancusi both acknowledge that it’s not easy to cover Trump. “There is no playbook for this,” Heckman says. But now that the former president is also a criminal defendant in two separate cases—an unprecedented development in American politics—reporters should take great care not to downplay the gravity of the situation. 

“It is completely appropriate for journalists to cover the indictment of a former president,” says Heckman, who covered the New Hampshire primary for years at The Concord Monitor. “As many have said, this is an unprecedented situation. Novelty is a news value, and the watchdog role of the press dictates it should be covering the indictment of an elected official intensely … particularly given that what Trump is accused of doing in the federal case involves matters of national security and public well-being.”

But Heckman said the press should scrupulously avoid commenting on how Trump’s legal troubles sway voters’ opinion of him.  

“Where it gets a little problematic is to the extent coverage is limited to how the indictments are impacting Trump’s poll numbers,” she adds. “It’s a small part of the story, but it needs to be just that.” 

“We’re used to seeing questions about poll numbers when a candidate says something they shouldn’t on the campaign trail, or has an unscripted encounter with a voter—that’s all normal stuff,” Heckman says. “Being indicted on really serious federal charges—that’s radically different, and should be treated as such.”

Framing and context

When more than 2,000 Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to stop lawmakers from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory, the “stakes” for democracy became crystal clear, Mancusi says. 

Trump’s strategy to outright deny the results of the 2020 presidential election—its predictable and observably direct impact on democratic processes and public trust—perhaps marked a turning point in the press’s relationship with Trump as chief newsmaker, Mancusi says.

That should be the organizing principle journalists should adopt when covering the 2024 campaign.

Peter Mancusi, an associate teaching professor of journalism at Northeastern University

If the mainstream media was already in the midst of a sea change prior to Jan. 6 as it concerns Trump, the birth of The Washington Post’s democracy team heralded a whole new chapter. Mancusi says that the proliferation of the democracy beat, which focuses on issues of transparency, voting rights, poll access, among others, signaled a new direction for political journalism. Increased attention to issues of democracy provides critical framing and context for reporters, who otherwise might get caught up in the “he said, she said” style of reporting that some experts say leads to an environment where false claims and half-truths are more likely to go unchallenged. 

“He said, she said” journalism describes the expectation that reporters give equal voice to both sides in a dispute or story. Reporters shouldn’t avoid reaching out to both sides, but rather position dubious or outright false claims within a context that flags them as such, Mancusi says. Reflexively seeking “the other side” without the proper context can lead to a fallacy of “bothsidesism,” or false balance, Heckman says. 

“To me, it’s all about framing and context,” Mancusi says. “That should be the organizing principle journalists should adopt when covering the 2024 campaign.”

Inherent to all democracies worldwide is the fundamental assumption of a free press. As a result, the issues facing democracy take on even greater importance in the media, Mancusi says. 

“Lots of reporters are framing their stories in different ways, given the threats,” he says. “And the defense of democracy seems to be a common theme.”

Andrew Donohue, managing editor of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, writing in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attacks, summarized the crisis facing democracy today—in a “post-truth” world: “Even if this anti-democratic movement doesn’t succeed over the next month, it’s shown a path to undermining the legitimacy of an election. It’s exposed how much of our system relies on the integrity of the officials in county canvassing boards, state legislatures, and the offices of each secretary of state.”

Back to basics

In some ways, the lessons of 2016 really call for a return to basics, Mancusi says. That means continued rigorous fact-checking and “asking tough questions.”

Referencing a recent Fox News interview between Bret Baier and Trump, Mancusi says that journalists with access to Trump ought simply to continue to ask pointed questions targeting inconsistencies and past lies, leveraging the evidence presented in the indictments to drill down to the truth. 

Mancusi says he’s already noticed that news organizations are starting to change their tune ahead of 2024. For one, major TV stations have shied away from airing lengthy unedited footage of Trump rallies and speeches. Mancusi and Heckman agree that to do so this time around would be inappropriate. 

Another change: the willingness to label Trump a liar.  

“During his first term, it took quite a while before the newspapers would even or even use the word lie,” Mancusi says. “For a long time, they would use language like, ‘[Trump] mischaracterized … or falsely asserted,’ but never that he lied.”

“After a certain point, [the media] crossed the river,” Mancusi adds.

Heckman noted that when Trump first burst on the political scene, it had a destabilizing effect on the profession. 

“Journalism, especially political journalism, relies heavily on professional norms and routines,” Heckman says. “There are some very good reasons for that.”

“For one, the news can be very chaotic and, by definition, unpredictable,” she adds. “It makes sense that journalists have a set of professional routines and norms that they follow when things get hectic.”

As reporters and their editors grappled with how to cover a candidate who, according to The Washington Post’s official tally, lied to or misled the public on 30,573 occasions during the course of his presidency, those norms and routines were to some degree upended or jettisoned. What’s more, Heckman says outliers like Trump “demand we reconsider them.”

A trial start date in the case involving Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 14. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.