Trump’s Treatment of the Press: A Harbinger of Bad Things to Come

23 January 2017, 1823 EST

Over the weekend, the Trump Administration had some interesting discussions with and about the press.  First, talking at CIA headquarters on Saturday, President Trump remarked that he is in a “war” with reporters, who are the “most dishonest human beings on Earth.”  Later that same day, his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, accused the media of “shameful and wrong” reporting on the unbigly audience sizes at the inauguration.  And, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Trump Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway not only spoke of “alternative facts” about the inauguration’s audience size but also included a pretty blatant threat to journalist Check Todd:


“KELLYANNE CONWAY: Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.”


As an American, I want to give our President the benefit of the doubt.  However, this treatment of the press is deplorable and worrisome.  And, sadly, it doesn’t appear to be new to Trump and the Trump campaign.

Image result for rope tree journalist shirt

Journalists are critical for the functioning of our political system.  As the Pew Research Center remarked over a decade ago:


“Freedom and democracy depend upon individuals who refuse to give up their belief that the free flow of timely, truthful information is what has made freedom, self-government and human dignity possible.”


And, unfortunately, being a journalist is a difficult and often dangerous job.  In 2016, for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that there were 48 journalists killed in 2016 as a result of their work.  Recent work by Anita R. Gohdes and Sabine C. Carey shows that harm to journalists is a harbinger of country-level deteriorations of human rights.  As they report:


“Our research underlines the importance of taking the treatment of journalists seriously, not only because it endangers their lives and limits our understanding of events on the ground, but because their physical safety is an important precursor of more repression in the future.”


It could be easy to see violence towards journalists as a phenomenon that happens only outside of the United States or other advanced democracies.  The Trump Administration’s comments are just hot air, right?  Journalists shouldn’t be in danger here.  Well, unfortunately, the United States and other democracies are precisely where journalists have the highest likelihood of being killed.  Victor Asal, Matthew Krain, Brandon Kennedy, and I have forthcoming work at Foreign Policy Analysis where we examine the factors that led to journalist killings.  Remarkably, we find that democracy does not make journalists safer.  Instead:


“[A] more democratic context makes it easier for journalists to pursue stories that put them at risk and that they are thus more likely to be killed by actors trying to avoid the spotlight and exposure.”


In short, our piece finds that journalists are more frequently killed in democracies,  typically by non-state actors.  Journalists in the United States, like journalists in other democratic regimes, are at an increased risk of harm due to the investigative journalism that often accompanies democratic freedoms.  Although the state is rarely the perpetrator,  government actions that denigrate journalists could embolden non-state actors to use violence against journalists.

Journalism is important and journalist safety needs to be a priority. The Trump Administration’s actions do not bode well for the safety of journalists. And, harm to journalists could imply future harm to us all.