US President Donald Trump often accuses journalists of treating him unfairly. Sometimes, he is justified in that claim. The G7 summit in Sicily highlighted the need for improvement from the news media.
The news from the G7 meeting in Taormina spread like wildfire. Leaders, the story went, walked through the streets of the historic city center together, all but one that is - US President Donald Trump had once again tricked his partners. Rather than walk in unison with the Italian, French, German, Japanese, British and Canadian leaders, Trump opted to have himself driven around in a golf cart, and he even arrived late. Britain's Sunday Times newspaper ran the headline: "Out of step," and many other media outlets, including Deutsche Welle, ran with the story as well. The story was backed by Tweets such as this one, which was retweeted some 20,000 times:
The only problem: Those who looked closely will also have seen that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not among the leaders walking through the city center either. Like Trump, he, too, took up the hosts' offer and traveled in a golf cart. A diplomat confirmed that Abe had declined the spontaneous stroll, noting that the Japanese are not fans of snap protocol changes. Thus, the headline should have read: Two drive and five decide to walk the 1.5 kilometers from Taormina's Amphitheater to Piazza San Domenico. But that truthful headline would only have been half as juicy. And that is exactly what we are dealing with in an age in which journalists are constantly being accused of spreading fake news.
The next misleading Tweet came the following day. It featured video footage showing President Trump without headphones while his colleagues could be seen earnestly listening to simultaneous translations of Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni's thoughts on the refugee crisis. Media outlets promptly assumed that Trump did not even care to listen to the Italian host. The report was retweeted 20,000 times. Many journalists felt confirmed in their opinion that everyone at the meeting was engaged in finding solutions to the world's urgent problems - all but one: the isolated, demonstratively uninterested US president.
There was just one problem with that assumption: Trump had indeed been listening. Sean Spicer, his press secretary, tweeted an explanation: "As usual @POTUS wears a single ear piece for translation in his right ear." That ear piece was not visible in the video clip. In the past, Spicer has drawn much attention for making utterly baseless claims. Nevertheless, anyone who looks closely at footage from other sessions will clearly see that Trump is wearing a small ear piece in his right ear. Sadly, a correction of the erroneous original Tweet only garnered 173 retweets.
So what conclusions should one draw from two days of summit meetings and these two dubious stories? We must work more carefully in this hectic, social media driven news age, even if that means a Tweet will go out an hour later. And, of course: Journalists have been using storytelling and wit to highlight facts since journalism became a profession. It cannot be denied that Trump was very much isolated at the meeting. Unfortunately, journalists used the wrong visual evidence to illustrate that fact. Part of the blame belongs to President Trump himself. After his boorish performance at the NATO meeting in Brussels, where he pushed aside Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic to get into the front row for a photo call, no one was surprised to hear that he reportedly did not care to listen to, nor bother to seek contact with his G7 colleagues.
And that is also the crux of the problem. No one was genuinely surprised, because no one was actually there. Since journalists were mostly denied access to meetings, they were forced to use short video transmissions and background discussions to craft their stories. Most of the 4,000 accredited reporters at the summit watched proceedings from a remote press center. If one wants to avoid such problems in the future, then it would be better to err on the side of public interest when seeking to find a balance between security and access.