Faced with the growing recognition that the electorate was uninformed or, at minimum, deeply in the thrall of fake news, far too many journalists are responding not with calls for change but by digging in deeper to exactly the kinds of practices that got us here in the first place.
I’ve heard far too many calls for journalists to genuflect all the harder to the tired old god of “objectivity,” years after the book The Elements of Journalism taught us that while we can embrace independence from faction and transparency about the methods we use to verify information, pretending as though we can mirror what we see without bias is intellectually impossible.
False equivalence, or the mandate to paint both sides as equally valid, regardless of evidence, helps exactly nobody decide how to vote, and erodes trust in journalism even more, as people know or sense the fundamental dishonesty and pandering this entails. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen articulates so cogently, “Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press,” creating a situation in which the simple act of calling a lie a lie is worthy of worried consternation.
Even more important, there are no “two sides” when it comes to bigotry. Responsible journalists should simply state to their audience that they have decided that to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, etc. is an acceptable form of bias, much as journalists of times past eventually decided it was unnecessary and abhorrent to get a quote from someone to defend lynching when writing a story about these horrific crimes.
For example, when the New York Times writes an article about a meeting of a group of white nationalists that includes the following quote, among others that are equally damning, from a speaker:
But the white race, he added, is “a race that travels forever on an upward path.” “To be white is to be a creator, an explorer, a conqueror,” he said.
…there is absolutely no need to say in the same piece that “the alt-right has been difficult to define.” No, sir, it has not been difficult to define. This is called racism, pure and simple, and your efforts to normalize it is what is driving away a huge swath of your readers. The correct response is that of NYT columnist Charles Blow:
In the social journalism program at the CUNY J-School I lead, we teach that journalism is fundamentally about empathy and listening. It is a service to the public that begins by listening to their needs, not a product made by all-knowing editors that we then must somehow then convince or even trick people into believing that they want to read or watch with snazzy headlines or crafty social media distribution strategies.
This social journalism approach must apply to all communities. Yes, white, working-class, rural voters deserve empathy, as all other human beings do. Especially by what I generally agree is an often elitist, East Coast centric press. (I’m from Wisconsin — I get it.) And I agree with my colleague Jeff Jarvis that we can do a better job of “informing and building trust, even with Trump’s community.”
But I am so very, very tired of hearing journalists and pundits at post-election panels talk about how the widespread media surprise over Trump’s victory reveals our neglect of the misunderstood, rural, white, working-class voter.
I would argue we’ve actually done a better job representing this voter than most, although as with anything we could do better. To take just two examples, see this excellent, nuanced, non-condescending piece on West Virginia Trump voters in the New Yorker. And while this piece doesn’t quite represent evangelicals accurately (they don’t believe in despair), it’s pretty well done and fair.
Where is our equally vociferous lament for the people of color and women and other marginalized groups who have largely been left out of our election reports? Why are so few asking whether our well-documented under-representation of women as journalists and as sources affected the coverage of our first female nominee for president? Why don’t many journalists’ sudden concern about coverage gaps include the many brown people who also inhabit the working class? For this group, too, is so tired and so disillusioned that, in my home city of Milwaukee, many didn’t bother to vote.
And these WI voters were not alone — Democratic turnout stagnated this election, and the results cannot be conveniently explained simply by vote switching among the white working class. You can blame that on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, as many do, but I think the answer is much more complicated than that.
Instead of talking to people and finding out what issues they want candidates to address, our campaign coverage was overwhelmingly dominated by the horse race, which academics like the late James Carey have long found reduces the public to mere spectators and produces just this kind of apathy.
Where is the soul-searching by journalists about our failure to engage people in to participate in the democratic process?
Let us note, too, that not all of us journalists were so surprised by Trump’s victory. Though I have plenty of privilege as a white person, as a woman affected by sexism for most of my career, I pushed back with liberal friends smug in Clinton’s clear path to victory. And my current and former students — many of them people of color, immigrants/relatives of immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people who have overcome or still struggle with poverty, etc. — were also not nearly as surprised that a man who ran on a platform full of misogyny and racism could ascend to the highest office. We knew this could happen because we live it.
So where DO we go from here, then?
Not to toot our own horn too much, but social journalism offers a path forward to produce the kinds of journalism that has impact and points toward solutions. Starting with the audience and their needs, we offer ways that journalists can engage people, and create journalism *with* people, not *for* them.
We desperately need more diverse newsrooms. And we also need to do a far better job of encouraging open communication among the journalists already in newsrooms, because if people are too afraid to point out our blind spots, even the pitiful diversity we already have can’t offer us much. I know far too many well-intentioned, brilliant white male editors who dismiss or fail to take seriously the concerns of their younger, more diverse staff members — and when it happens to my former students, it breaks my heart. And it does. Regularly.
Trying to pander to white nationalists and the extreme right wing — people that don’t live in a reality-based universe —I don’t see that as the way to restore our broader credibility. Bear witness and report and try to understand, sure…but I would instead look a lot harder at how we help voters of all kinds make informed decisions, and if anything, focus on the people we continue to marginalize.
See the brilliant Nikole Hannah-Jones piece in the New York Times Magazine on Iowa voters that went for Trump. She listens. She has empathy. She tries to understand her sources’ perspectives in an in-depth way. But when she uncovers the abject racism that often underlies the facile economic arguments for Trump, she calls it what is is, with context. It is racist. This is what we need.
Finally — journalists, look inward, but don’t despair too hard.
As you can see from above, I have strong opinions about what we can — what we MUST — do better.
But I recognize that we must turn the lens of empathy on ourselves as well. We screwed a lot of things up this election season, and in the ones that came before it. But a lot of outstanding, hard-hitting, investigative journalism was done this election. So many publications offered fearless, well-researched pieces that exposed, for example, Trump’s false philanthropic boasts, his racist past, his maze of debts, and more. There are also countless unsung staffers who help promote these stories on social media, who edit and fact check them, or handle the normal daily grind of stories so these investigative reporters can do their longer-term work.
And so many journalists work so hard with so little resources because of their fundamental belief in public service and the importance of the Fourth Estate in our democracy. Many burn out thanks to the little support they get for what they do.
I honor and applaud your work. Like any profession, there are many things to improve. Thank you all for all you do. Now let’s do better.