CAMP 2017: Lynn Sweet on media’s mission in Trump age

Story by Chandra Bozelko, 2017 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Lynn Sweet, the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief, spoke at a luncheon at the Journalism and Women Symposium’s Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP) 2017 on Saturday, Oct. 28.

Approximately 150 women working in journalism and media came to Hot Springs, Arkansas for the annual event. They were warned by Sweet in her keynote address that, though a combination of fast information-sharing technology and a leader who may have much to hide has the potential to impact Americans in significant ways, it should never change the media’s mission at its core: bringing the truth to the public.

“This is an important time to be a journalist,” Sweet said. The advantages of modern technology have made reporters of almost anyone with access to a scene or an event. “This means that the bar for professional journalists to add value to content is higher than it has ever been,” Sweet said.

“Trump’s relentless attacks…to discredit, degrade and demonize journalism, as Trump appeals to his base, have damaged the public’s opinion of our profession,” she said. Trump’s barrage of “fake news” allegations is changing the public’s perception not only of reporters but of reality, Sweet said, citing a Morning Consult/POLITICO Poll released earlier this month that found almost half of Americans believe major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump.  The journalists sitting in the room, she said, were obligated to monitor and correct those misperceptions.  “The truth,” she said, is “the essence of our business.”

Sweet also quantified some of the changes in the way the current presidential administration interacts with the media. She explained that, while White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has allowed conservative media outlets to be called on more often during press briefings than they would have been in the past, the president has actually become a bit more accessible to the media. He has done 23 short question-and-answer sessions with pool reporters in September and spent a full 15 minutes answering reporters’ questions as he was about to board Marine One on October 25.

So far, though, the administration has fallen short on total transparency. Using data collected by Martha Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project and retired professor of political science at Towson University, Sweet reported that Trump has held only one solo press conference between January 20 and October 20 of his first year in office, compared to 10 for Barack Obama and four for George W. Bush during the same time period in their inaugural years.

Whether all of the changes Sweet has witnessed during her career suggest an enduring new strategy for White House communications is unclear.

“How does the Trump chapter end for journalism? Sweet asked. “I don’t know.”

Sweet ended with an exhortation: “I urge you to meet and exceed the highest standards of our profession…I urge you to always make one more phone call, send one more text, shoot off one more email, go back to a source just to make sure you’ve got the story right.”