What’s Up With Journalism?
By Abby Shamray
After the election, journalists turned inward to reflect on the role they played in getting Donald Trump into the White House. Blame was put on the portrayal of him as a joke who had no chance, the polls that grossly overlooked Middle America, and the sensationalism of a campaign that read more like a reality show transcript.
Yet throughout this reflection, which has been near-constant since November 9, few lessons have been truly learned. Next to articles decrying “where we went wrong” are articles that continue with the same narrative that journalists purport to have elected Trump in the first place. There is no doubt that journalism is in crisis right now. We just need to figure out where to go from here.
It appears that the three main problems with journalism today are a lack of trust by the public, difficulty adapting to the digital age, and improper journalism practices.
The lack of trust is evident by the accusations of fake news. After the Facebook scandal which made headlines after the shooting at the D.C. pizzeria, accusations about fake news have been lobbed at both obviously fake clickbait articles and legitimate news sources.
President Trump, at both press conferences and on his Twitter account, attacked NBC, CNN, and Buzzfeed, among others, for disseminating “FAKE NEWS.” A term that originally rose to prominence in order to criticize completely false stories has now come to mean anything that the accuser disagrees with.
A recent study published by Stanford by Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford found that false headlines and news stories do not have a significant impact on the way people vote and did not result in the election swinging toward Trump. In a New York Times article, Neil Irwin stated that the results suggested that, “People’s hunger for information that suits their prejudices is powerful, and in the digital media age, a pile of it emerges to satisfy that demand.”
Fake news is not ruining people’s ability to tell fact from fiction. It is feeding into the human tendency for confirmation bias. All news stories have an angle and the more partisan U.S. politics becomes, the more the public will seek out stories that angle the truth to fit their worldview.
Circling back to a distrust of the media, a Gallup poll from 2016 found that 32 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media, a new low. Only 14 percent of Republicans express trust, down from 32 percent the previous year.
So where is the distrust coming from?
Journalism’s ability to adapt to the digital age has been less than impressive. After decrying the end of print as digital clearly became dominant, large press organizations have finally gotten online.
The quick pace of the digital era has changed what news outlets will consider publishing. The professional ethics of journalism should remain unchanged from the days of purely print, something the panel discussed at length. However, the quickened pace of the news cycle has changed the game.
This game change is exhibited with the dossier on Donald Trump published by Buzzfeed. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, argues that digital journalism means publishers are no longer “gatekeepers of information,” but rather distributors, he said in an interview on MSNBC. He stated that the tendency to gatekeep is what led to distrust of the press during previous elections.
The dossier had been in circulation for a while amongst reporters and political players, but no outlet had published it since they could not verify the claims. It caused outrage, but the fact that it was published gave other outlets a reason to talk about it, to discuss not only the content but what the implications were. CNN’s report of the dossier is what led to Trump to denounce them as a “fake news” organization.
Amol Rajan of the BBC wrote on whether or not Buzzfeed was right to publish the dossier and argued that requiring verification of information is what separates Wikileaks from journalists, who “corroborate information before making selections as to what should be published.” Rajan makes the point that journalists come across information all the time that the public “should know” but that cannot be ethically published since they do not have solid sources.
Beyond the release of the dossier, there is the fact that Trump’s angry midnight tweets are news for an entire news cycle, and stories that essentially humanize neo-Nazis have emerged as journalists attempt to explain Trump’s win. Trump scandals won’t stick since he is constantly distracting the media with new “scandals.”
Then there is media attempting to connect to Trump voters. I’m tired of seeing articles about the alt-right that have shifted neo-Nazis image into something more “palatable.” An article by Politico called “The Alt-Right Comes to Washington” featured an interview with a “flamboyant right-wing British provocateur” that had details about him munching on cucumber and planning a party. That same guy has a lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster. A&E produced a (now canceled) reality series called Generation KKK.
Giving a very public voice to these viewpoints has proven to only increase hate crimes. According to The New York Times and USA Today, reports of hate crimes rose 6 percent in 2015 at the beginning of the election cycle, and even more afterward. Articles that utilize the same techniques that gossip rags use to normalize celebrities in order to show white supremacists in their “natural habitat” do nothing to make readers understand 1) why Trump got elected, or 2) why the alt-right movement has grown in the U.S.
Apparently, in order to get hits, news outlets need to either rush to break news first, whether or not it has been verified, or provide a grotesque look into a tiny fraction of American politics that ought not be mainstreamed.
Journalism is experiencing growing pains. Much is said about why that is—a new low in public trust and the new rules that have been written by an online era. Then, of course, there is the improper journalistic practices that seek out stories without verification, seize upon things that are not news, or try to attract readership by normalizing toxic subcultures.