Tag Archives: Press Conference

So Trump Had a Press Conference…

I’ve mainly been working on non-politics projects lately, so I haven’t seen any of the Donald Trump press conference yet. I’m not going to try and assess his performance or the news coverage of that event specifically until I watch the film. On the other hand, I have published on presidential press conferences, so I wanted to cover a few broad rules of the setting that should translate to this week’s press conference or any future press conference:

1) Subsequent news coverage will focus on what Trump said, as opposed to getting a wide balance of opinion, unless a news organization dedicates a lot of space to the press conference

One of the main things I wanted to study in my dissertation was whether politicians could do things that affects the balance of opinion found in news coverage. I looked at press conferences from 1891-2009 since we can compare what was said to the subsequent news coverage, which is rare in news interviews. I measured balance of opinion as a proportion of quoted words from the president to all quoted words in news coverage of an event. The New York Times‘ average proportion was 0.757. In other words, nearly 76 percent of the quoted words came from the president versus 24 percent for everyone else. ABC Nightly News’ proportion was 0.695.

I found surprisingly few variables affect this ratio. As we might imagine, if a president has a joint press conference with another foreign leader they tend to get some quotes in the news as well. However, there was no significant partisan difference after controlling for different ways that presidents set up their press conferences. Approval ratings have tiny, insignificant effects. One peer reviewer was convinced that presidents who had been in the news a lot wouldn’t have as much control. After weeks of gathering additional data I found this had literally 0 impact.

The main thing that leads to more balance of opinion is whether news organizations leave enough space to quote people other than the president. When the Times or ABC only published one short story, that story would only try to summarize the main things the president said. The single most common outcome is a completely one-sided story. More important conferences will get multiple stories, each focused on a different issue or incident. This is when we get more sources.

2) The questions and the subsequent writeup are two different things

Press conferences are a performance. Since presidential press conferences are on TV, there’s more room for journalists to perform, not just presidents. Many journalists want to brand themselves as tough interrogators, holding presidents accountable. With the rise of partisan news, the image of holding people accountable has become less about “I’d grill everyone, even my own mother!” and more about partisan allegiances.

Working journalists know that they need to produce some story at the end. If they keep pressing the president on one topic, he may cancel the press conference or simply not say anything interesting. Since one press conference could lead to five stories on five different topics, there is pressure to move on instead of harping on a particular topic. The more a president opens up about a topic, the more there is for a journalist to write about. Aggressive flashes during the press conference can turn to deference afterwards. On the other hand, exchanges that seem innocuous as they happen may attract much more attention after the conference, when people can review the tapes.

3) The performance is news

Journalists have written about how people conducted themselves in on-the-record presidential press conferences for as long as presidents have held them on the record. I looked at these stories dating back to the Times’ very first story about Eisenhower doing one press conference for print media then inviting news cameras in for a second, shorter conference that repeated most of the same questions. Day-to-day news reporting in the Times and other objective news organizations follows a strict rule of avoiding judgments about a source’s moral character. Press conferences are an exception. Someone’s performance and character is fair game. One of the more common strategies is to have some reporters focus on the literal facts while one reporter focuses on the conference as a performance.

I assume a lot of people are writing about Trump’s performance as we speak. You may think journalists focusing on theatre is another one of those unusual Trump things. It isn’t. Journalists only gave a few years before hammering away at Eisenhower for poor performances in front of the camera:

“One purpose of today’s Presidential news conference was to promote acceptance of the Administration’s new Middle East security policy, but two incidents occurred there that are likely to have the opposite effect.”

Throughout the article the reporter focused on Eisenhower’s communication style: “casual remarks…that implied that the United States might well have to use small atomic weapons” and his “extemporaneous” answer to another question. Five months later, Eisenhower’s “casual dismissal” of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s appearance on CBS was used to imply “the tendency of the Administration to continue regarding propaganda as a nuisance rather than as an opportunity.”

4) Public opinion doesn’t affect journalists

My adviser Steve Clayman – along with several colleagues – studied whether unpopular presidents face more aggressive questioning. He found no relationship between approval ratings and any form of journalistic aggressiveness. I found no relationship between approval ratings and how much attention a press conference gets or the balance of opinion in those stories. It’s probably a good thing that the press will not be more deferential to a popular president. On the other hand, this means Trump will not get additional scrutiny just because he is deeply unpopular.


Watching Obama’s Performance, Forgetting It’s Incomplete?

As most news organizations have noted, Barack Obama made history on Friday by only taking questions from female reporters. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that that Obama’s decision was planned in advance: “As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the President’s closely watched, end of the year news conference.”

After the press conference, many reporters and pundits went on Twitter to express their pleasure with the gender dynamics of the press conference (Vox has a good roundup, which I will link to instead of reposting each tweet here.) As a former political reporter, I find this celebration warranted in many respects. It makes me think of all the brilliant and dedicated female reporters, editors and producers I had as role models.

That being said, at the end of the day I was deeply frustrated by Obama’s press conference strategy, because he only took eight questions. There are no formal rules about how long a press conference should be, only historical precedents. End of the year press conferences are a tradition. Even presidents who dislike press conferences tend to take 10-15 questions at the end of the year. It’s usually a way to talk about future policy goals, because few major policies and crises historically emerged in December.

Last Friday had a different news cycle than most end of the year press conferences. It was full of news! Let’s start thinking about what reporters may want to ask questions about:

  • The Sony hack
  • Race relations and policing
  • Cuba
  • The torture memo
  • The Keystone pipeline
  • The recently passed budget and its numerous hidden provisions
  • Probably other things?

Each of these topics requires multiple questions in a press conference. If reporters only get to ask eight questions, they will probably leave at least one of these topics out. It is impossible to get enough depth for a story and breadth for multiple stories out of eight questions, because Obama will only say so much in eight responses.

At this point, it is important to remember that the modern, on-camera presidential press conference is not just about presidents giving updates and arguments to reporters. Presidents go on camera to give a performance. Along with providing news, presidents need to avoid this kind of lead in the New York Times:

“One purpose of today’s Presidential news conference was to promote acceptance of the Administration’s new Middle East security policy, but two incidents occurred there that are likely to have the opposite effect.”

We may assume this critical lead came from a recent Obama press conference, or maybe a George W. Bush press conference. It actually comes from James Reston, describing Dwight Eisenhower’s performance on Jan. 24, 1957. Reston looked at the “casual remarks” of Eisenhower describing his nuclear weapons policy, which “implied that the United States might well have to use small atomic weapons.” Journalists’ questions have become more aggressive since 1968 (see Clayman et al), but as long as presidents have given public performances in press conferences there have been a subset of reporters interested in writing about the performance.

Presidents often prepare for hostile questions, but answering these questions in the moment is far more challenging. Actual responses always have a degree of improvisation, and may not work as well as they did in rehearsal.

(Bush’s justification of torture is hard to listen to, but he was willing to answer 8 separate questions on the topic.)

Obama only taking questions from female reporters is an ideal story to give about his “performance.” It is the rare chance for a president to plan out his performance and just stick to the script of which reporters to call on. Reporters and bloggers will pick up on the story. It’s very easy to write. If reporters didn’t notice Obama only called on female reporters, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded them afterwards.

Because people want one narrative about Obama’s performance, the all female reporters performance pushes the small press conference “is Obama ducking questions?” performance out of the picture. Would we learn more about Obama’s positions by having eight women asking questions, or ten women? The answer is clear: adding more questions would probably give more information. Even if Obama ducks the two additional questions, we wouldn’t be any worse off with 10 questions instead of 8. By the same logic, a press conference with eight women leading off and then two men at the end would be equal or better than a the press conference Obama actually had, since there were certainly more substantive questions to ask.

The symbolism in Obama’s press conference was nice, but it shouldn’t distract people from the incomplete substance.