Standing up for journalism in the digital age

A little over a decade ago, I left the newspaper business.

I had spent 14 years of my career in a variety of newsrooms. I had experienced life at a family-owned newspaper as well as corporate-controlled outlets under Gannett and other chains. By 2005, the push toward online had taken over as news organizations struggled to figure out how to reach audiences and make money.

Even then, I could see the toll it was beginning to take on our journalists. It became more and more difficult for beat reporters to delve into investigations. We were pushing them for more frequent updates and shorter stories. I worried what the future might hold.

In 2006, I became a doctoral fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia and began researching ways to save newspapers. By 2008, my research agenda had changed — to ways to save journalism. It wasn’t about the medium; it was about the connection between information and community. With the rise of SEO and social media, we were at risk of losing robust reporting, especially at the local and regional levels.

Fast forward 10 years to the rise of Trump, the unlikeliest presidential nominee of our time who is pushing people such as The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg to ask: What is the role of journalism in today’s society? Do we remain “neutral” observers — what some would argue is the stenographic fallacy of misunderstood objectivity? Or are we in an environment that demands something more from us as journalists?

Brian Stelter, former media columnist for The New York Times and current host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” attacked the confused conceptions of balance and fairness when faced with a candidate who regularly ignores the truth.

The host noted how Trump has continually said that if he doesn’t win, the election must be “rigged.” Stelter then cautioned journalists and television hosts from defaulting to the stenographic role, allowing candidates to make such claims without challenge:

Interviewers — even the ones that support the person they’re interviewing — have an obligation to probe further and push back when a candidate says something dangerous, and this is dangerous. Suggesting an election is going to be stolen? This is third-world dictatorship stuff.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their seminal book The Elements of Journalism, warned against  contorted notions of objectivity. In the American model of journalism, objectivity should be focused on the method of news gathering, not the news gatherers. In other words, journalists should act like social scientists, vigorously testing and verifying information. They should be transparent with their data, and detail their news-gathering methods and sources. And they should not set up some false sense of “fairness” when people wrongly challenge well-established facts as beliefs.

It is a model under fire because journalists today rarely have as much time and resources to delve deeply into issues of import. And with so much emphasis these days on immediacy over accuracy, too many live interviews go unchecked or unchallenged. Too much time is spent on what might garner clicks than what might effect change.

Leave it to none other than John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” to capture the essence of the state of journalism today.

For the sake of our society, let’s hope more people heed his call to arms:

And the truth is, a big part of the blame for this industry’s dire straits is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce. We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free. And the longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it. … Sooner or later, we are either going to have to pay for journalism, or we are all going to pay for it.