Covering Trump’s America

Covering Trump’s America

A Rutgers journalism professor helps students navigate media’s role in writing about social issues

Donald Trump and the press
President Donald Trump talks to the media Feb. 25, 2016, at a public press event following the RNC debate in Houston, Texas.

'America needs its journalists now more than ever. I think this is going to bring renewed interest and support for journalism.'
– Mary D’Ambrosio, Rutgers journalism professor

President Donald Trump’s executive orders have the potential to greatly affect the lives of Muslims, refugees, undocumented immigrants, women around the world, advocates of climate control and millions of Americans insured by the Affordable Care Act.
It’s up to journalists – another group caught in the White House’s crosshairs – to share their stories, says Rutgers journalism professor, Mary D’Ambrosio. 
That’s why D’Ambrosio is encouraging a new generation of gatekeepers to put a face on Trump’s policies in the unit “Covering Trump’s America,” which she developed for her course “Writing about Social Issues.”  
“The class is about how to cover ordinary people’s lives affected by policies, how to tell the stories of people rather than officials,” said the professor who joined Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Communication and Information in 2015. “You’re not covering the governor and his talk about the housing agency. You’re covering people who lost their housing or people who feel threatened in their same sex marriages or frightened that they might not be able to get an abortion.”
During the second week of the spring semester, D’Ambrosio brainstormed story ideas with a dozen students, challenging them to consider how Trump’s proposed policies on health care, sanctuary cities, immigration, trade and the environment could alter the lives of New Jerseyans for better or worse. 
“These are big picture ideas you’re going to want to narrow down,” she told the class.
One student’s story pitch focused on how millennial women are responding to the administration’s stance on reproductive rights.
“A lot of my peers are getting IUDs because they are getting ready to defund Planned Parenthood,” said Rachel Landingin, 22, a journalism major.
To flesh out Landingin’s idea, D’Ambrosio suggested she work her Rutgers contacts by interviewing students as well as a professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and a doctor or nurse with Student Health Services as well as a Planned Parenthood representative.
The professor reminded students to check their personal opinions at the door. 
“As journalists you try not to put our political leanings in our pieces,” she said.
She encouraged her class to interview Trump supporters as well as detractors; consider how widening divides between races, classes and urban/rural populations affected this election; and explore possible positive outcomes to Trump’s policies. 
“Can New Jersey hope to get any benefits from the Trump agenda?  Is Trump going to bring jobs and factories back to New Jersey?” she wondered aloud.  “How might we do a story like that?”
D’Ambrosio’s course doesn’t shy away from the new administration’s vocal criticisms of the media and threats to freeze out journalists who challenge its policies or question the legitimacy of its information.  In fact, she says, that negativity could positively impact the industry for years to come.   
“America needs its journalists now more than ever,” she says. “I think this is going to bring renewed interest and support for journalism.”
Aspiring photojournalist Jeremy Berkowitz, 22, sees D’Ambrosio’s course as a way to build on his skills as a visual storyteller by understanding the characteristics of compelling stories and how to write them. 
“I think it's really important to choose a beat that you feel strongly about, and social issues are some of the most crucial stories to be told right now,” he says.
While he acknowledges the political climate does make it a difficult time to be a journalist, Berkowitz says he is excited to get out into his chosen field. 
“With all of this talk of fake news and with so much political tension and distrust across the nation in regards to the media,” he says, “I think we need as many honest and passionate journalists as we can get, working to share real, educational and influential stories with the world.” 
An international reporter who came of age during the Watergate scandal and spent decades probing some of the globe’s darkest corners to expose social injustices and analyze political upheavals, D’Ambrosio reminds her students that this is not the first administration to vilify the media or peddle falsehoods as facts. 
“If you try to cover a presidency in France, Venezuela or Nigeria you’ll find there is very little access,” she says.” I think journalists should toughen up and fight for access if it’s not given to them on a silver platter.”  
The era of Nixon, and the Vietnam War, when governments used the media to lie to the American public, offers some useful guidance, D’Ambrosio adds. 
“The stronger Freedom of Information Act and sunshine laws that issued from those painful experiences (and that provided Americans with a level of information access unique in the world) are robust tools for dealing with government obfuscation – and we should double down on using them.”

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