Now more than ever, we need the media to seek truth, report facts, and hold those in power accountable. But without a major overhaul, is the press even up to the job?
There’s a crisis in public trust in media and the signs of it are everywhere. With admonitions of the coverage of 2016, embarrassing and offensive headlines going viral, hyper-consolidation of news companies and brands, plus ongoing mass layoffs, it’s no wonder Pew Research reported 29 percent of U.S. adults have little to no trust in the media. The sanctity of the Fourth Estate is now at risk. It’s clear a lot of things need to change. But in today’s social climate, is it fixable?
On July 17, 2015, HuffPost’s Washington bureau chief Ryan Grimm and editorial director Danny Shea announced the site would be covering Donald Trump’s campaign in the entertainment section, rather than within its political coverage. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” they wrote. “We won’t take the bait.” In December, Arianna Huffington announced the sideshow would be covered under politics. “It’s also morphed into something else,” she wrote, “An ugly and dangerous force in American politics.”
HuffPost is not the only media entity which needs that kind of deep reassessment. Cable news shows, newspapers, radio stations, magazines, media conglomerates, many, if not most of them need to seriously consider the mistakes and lessons from the election race to 2016 and radically rethink their journalistic strategy or risk repeating the same painful mistakes.
There’s a lot at stake: A study published in Science earlier this year showed fake news and false rumors spread six times faster on Twitter than any attempts to correct or clarify. Many more people are only seeing the first version of a story, not the following ones with updates, making it even more imperative journalists get the facts right on the first go. Incidents of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have risen past their previous peak levels in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Misinformation and hateful rhetoric about the motives and citizenship status of these groups has led to harassment, graffiti, and mass shootings, and there is a very real risk of those incidents increasing without great, thorough reporting. But also, more women, minorities and young people ran for Congress and state legislatures in 2018 than ever before. This is a positive trend that more accurately reflects current demographics, but reporting it inaccurately can hurt the long-term careers of candidates, alienate readers who would most benefit from this representation, as well as possibly dissuade other people from running themselves. It’s a make-or-break time on the business side of the industry too, with further declines in revenue from falling circulation and advertising; the crushing demands of venture capital funding on Vocativ, Mashable, Vice, and Buzzfeed; as well as changes in algorithms shifting what news and information is prioritized for readers, especially when those sources are poorly sourced or entirely made up.
Getting it right means shifting away from many of the trends and bad habits that hurt core democratic institutions like the validity of elections, the role of facts in political discourse and the independent press. For example, focusing too much on whether Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris are acting “likeable” enough while running for president, versus reporting in-depth on their policies and track records on issues like voter suppression, justice reform, or minimum-wage increases.
Missing policy coverage was also evident in how several major news outlets reported on the possible impact of a trade war in 2016, but very few of them explained how the agriculture sector’s multi-billion-dollar exports would be affected until after election night.
Sometimes the role of facts and the independent press are evident when national outlets miss, underreport or straight-up falsify stories of residents in rural areas, the Midwest, Appalachia, the Pacific-Northwest and the territories. For example, thousands died in Puerto Rico after homes, roads and hospitals were destroyed or heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria, resulting in lost power and little to no access to clean water. A false account of Fergus Falls, Minnesota in the magazine Der Spiegel eventually exposed the writer’s long history of fabricated quotes and sources.
Managing the endless tidal wave of news, tweets and developments coming out of the White House also means resisting the previous trend of amplifying and signal-boosting the President’s thousands of false and misleading claims, which often gave them much more readership and attention before a challenge or fact-check was also published or broadcast.
All of this while dealing with and keeping up to date with myriad other issues affecting democracy. Bots and fake accounts filled with misinformation that boost each other. Facebook’s firehose of issues with privacy, election interference, data breaches, lying about the benefits of pivoting to video and rapidly spreading misinformation. Harassment and death threats on Twitter making it extra difficult for women and people of color to do their work or go on the record as sources. Bad-faith claims made with intentional dishonesty to stir confusion, like the hyping of an anticlimactic memo from House Chairman Devin Nunes. Hacking and interference from Russia. Sorting through hoaxes. Covering dozens of shootings and multiple record-breaking natural disasters. Dealing with hedge fund ownership hyper-focused on short-term profits for owners, and little-to-no long-term investment in newsroom operations. And still working on long-term investigative stories in the public interest, such as exposing the use of force by police, sexual harassment and assault, as well as bad bets on video gambling.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done within newsrooms too. Short and long-term careers will continue to be determined by who the media industry chooses to hire and promote. However, the latest survey from the Women’s Media Center says women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 6.2 percent of local radio staff and 12.6 percent of local TV news staff. And despite the Kerner Commission’s report in 1968 highlighting how a lack of diversity affected news coverage, survey data from the American Society of News Editors continues to show the American media industry still heavily prioritizes “white men’s eyes and white perspective.”
In debates over horse-race reporting (Harvard says it’s bad), objectivity, the “view from nowhere”, the accuracy of polls, multi-million dollar salaries, whether access journalism should die, anonymous sources, as well as how journalists should use or not use social media, a simple question is often forgotten: How does this reporting serve the public interest, and who could be harmed as a result?
In many Black and Hispanic communities, the issues of police violence, voter suppression, school segregation, immigration, limited access to clean water, and new studies about the impact of climate change on low-income communities are paramount. But despite each group representing 11 percent of the electorate nationwide, reports show many media outlets render those concerns invisible despite their punishing impact on millions of Americans every day.
Using “racially-tinged” or “racially-charged” in stories and news reports about Representative Steve Knight instead of simply the word “racist” validates actions and ideologies out of fear of offending white readers. More journalists should listen to cultural critic Jay Smooth and focus on the facts of what happened. “Treat them like they took your wallet and focus on the part that matters: Holding each person accountable for the impact of their words and actions.”
The media industry’s hesitancy to take an active, explicit position on issues like democracy, climate change, and the thousands of migrant children in camps along the southern border also cannot continue. Despite arguments from the Republican Party, there is no “other side” to restricting the voting rights of millions of American citizens, the human role in rapidly increasing temperatures on natural disasters, as well as kids and toddlers being put in cages.
There are already some clear warning signs that lessons have not been learned: The pursuit of “false equivalency” meant coverage of Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib’s swearing about the president had five times more coverage on cable news than Republican Representative Steve King’s comments embracing and defending white supremacy. CBS News’ 2020 election team doesn’t have any Black journalists. More resources going to features on white Trump voters directly suffering from his policies but who remain loyal. The continued used of terms like “chain migration” and “illegal aliens.” CNN’s Jake Tapper posting a statement about the Covington Catholic teenager written by a PR firm run by a CNN commentator.
It’s not too late to fix things. It involves thinking seriously and focusing on the long-term, not just chasing brief financial gains, blindly following the competition or making ourselves the story. It’s considering the ramifications of even small choices and observations. It means giving up the idea that diversity is someone else’s problem.
For too long, the journalism industry has followed trends that hurt many of the most vulnerable groups it is supposed to help, and ignored significant shifts in consumption and demographics, leaving it scrambling to catch up. If journalism is the first draft of history and a critical part of democracy, it is worth remembering who gets to write it, who keeps being left out and who is hurt as a result. It is time to stop making excuses and get to work.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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