Covering Trump's White House: Not a typical beat
Covering the White House under Donald Trump is no bed of roses. "It's throwing yourself into a frenetic pace where everything is out of the ordinary," says Jérôme Cartillier, AFP White House Correspondent. A typical day starts before daybreak. "The US president tweets between 6am and 7am depending on what is going through his head or what Fox News is showing." Then you have to follow his official communications and his press gaggles -- often a chaotic exercise. All this is in addition to the usual heavy coverage flow.
"What was already challenging under a 'normal' administration has become crazy with Trump," says Andrew Beatty, AFP White House Correspondent. "It's impossible to cover all the news in one day. There just are not enough reporters to do it," he says, adding that "it is not always necessary to cover absolutely everything." He believes that much of the White House messaging is aimed at the president's electoral base and not of real interest to the international media.
"The main difficulty is that you have to write about Trump from morning to night, explaining how this administration, so different from previous ones, works," says Jérôme Cartillier. To make matters worse, certain things the president says or communicates are vague or in conflict with the facts. "We need to decode what he says but this often turns out to be difficult because even White House advisors are often caught off-guard." He believes the only solution is to "demand access so we can ask questions."
In this respect, he admits that Donald Trump's relationship with language sometimes complicates things for a news agency journalist. This is particular striking in the field of diplomacy where words are often carefully weighed. "When tension with North Korea was at its height, he cried out to journalists 'it's the calm before the storm'," recalls the reporter. "It was a phrase laden with meaning but how do we use it? What weight should we give it? At the same time, we couldn't just ignore a potentially major declaration."
The basic rules of agency journalism have not changed, however. "You need two things to unpick the actions of such an unusual president: colour about his style, his way of talking and interacting with people, and also context very high up in the copy," stresses Jérôme Cartillier. "We need to highlight the absurdities and contradictions if there are any, put his words into context and make sense of the flood of words and tweets. For example, comparing his declarations with the facts." Andrew Beatty concurs: "You have to stay factual and understand why Trump has said something and what the implications are. It's fairly classic."
Photographer Jim Watson, who has been covering the White House for the Agency for 13 years, also finds it an unpredictable administration. "Lots of events are announced at the last moment and we are constantly working in a hurry," he says. "It's not more complicated than before, we still have access, but you have to do everything quicker." That said, he admits to being bored by the end of the Obama presidency. "A sense of gloom had taken hold. All the events were the same," he recalls. "In some ways, Trump has reenergised photo coverage, which has become exciting again. There are two reasons for this: firstly, Trump himself has become a global attraction and secondly there is always something happening at the White House. Sometimes you have to wait around, but there will always be a good story at the end of the day."