What the post-Trump debate over journalism gets wrong
We don’t need journalists to hold fast or change everything, but a little of both
With the exception of Democrats, no group has done more soul searching since election day than journalists.
As a candidate, Donald Trump demonized the press, used social media to bypass it, hired a media propagandist to run his campaign, and established a pattern of proffering false statements and then denying doing so when caught. Afterward, the Oxford English Dictionary named the adjective “Post-truth” the word of the year, citing both the Brexit and U.S. elections. This declaration clearly indicates that the world of facts in which journalists try to operate, if not lost, is losing ground.
Since November, journalists have wondered in public and private how to cover a Trump government—though the question should probably be turned around to “what do citizens need now from the press?” The answers offered have ranged from the suggestion that press now abandon all its traditional canons to the idea that it must cling even faster to them than ever.
I’ve spent many of the last few weeks in gatherings on both coasts pondering these questions. I’ve also spent thirty years thinking about press responsibility, codifying those ideas in books such as “The Elements of Journalism,” and charting the changes to the press in the 21st century for ten years in Pew Research Center’s “The State of the News Media” report.
The ground has indeed shifted. But rather than helping the press, too many of the prescriptions I’ve heard threaten to further marginalize real journalism and play into the hands of those who want to position a free press as the political opposition rather than a separate and independent fourth estate.
The answer for journalism is not going to be found in chucking all the old notions or in clinging to them, but in a blend of embracing some revolutionary methods while keeping faith with some key fundamental principles. The following seven steps outline that path—one that will better serve the public in the new political, technology, and information era.
Long before the rise of fake news,or the 2016 election, the reportorial component of our media world—the part that sends out people to gather and verify facts (what my colleague Bill Kovach and I once called the Journalism of Verification)—was becoming an ever smaller part of the information flow people see.
Reportorial journalism now competes with a growing culture of commenting media, citizen conversation, and commercial media models that build audience around speed, curation, or political affinity. Now add something that only looks like media but is actually political propaganda, outlets such as Breitbart. And all these stream together on our social platforms.
Thus the old adage, just do our job, is important but insufficient. It is no longer enough to simply gather and report good stories. They will be drowned out or sink in the expanding ocean of distraction. Traditional good reporting is only a first step.
The potential of journalism in the 21st century is a stronger, wiser, more empirical, and more accurate form of journalism than was possible before. I have called this “the journalism of collaborative intelligence,” and it is a combination of blending the unique attributes of professional reporters with the power of machine learning and the intelligence and multiple vantage points of a networked community to learn and verify news at a much greater speed than ever before.
Perhaps no journalist earned more praise in the 2016 election than David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, who uncovered how President-elect Donald Trump’s charities work. But most people do not know the degree to which he used this notion of collaborative intelligence to do what many might consider traditional reporting.
The story of how Fahrenthold discovered that Trump’s foundation had violated the law to buy a portrait of Trump that was hanging in his Doral country club is just one example of collaborative intelligence at work. Fahrenthold received a tip one morning that the portrait existed, along with the suggestion that he could find it using a particular Google search for art. Fahrenthold used Google technology to identify what the portrait might look like. He then turned to his expanding universe of Twitter followers, asking them if anyone knew where the painting was now. If it was being used in a commercial rather than charitable setting, that would be a violation of the law. It was 10 a.m. in Washington at that point. A woman who followed Fahrenthold on Twitter guessed the portrait might be hanging in a Trump golf club somewhere and began searching by looking through photos from the clubs that guests had posted on TripAdvisor. Around 8 p.m. she found it among 385 guest photos posted on the TripAdvisor page for Trump’s Doral Country Club in Miami. The picture was from February, several months earlier. Fahrenthold tweeted to his followers asking if anyone knew if the portrait was still there. An anchor at the local Univision affiliate in Miami named Enrique Acevedo, whose offices are just blocks away from Doral, decided to book a room at the club for the night to answer Fahrenthold’s query. He got off work at midnight and checked in. Once there, he began wandering the grounds, asking housekeeping workers and maintenance crews if they had seen the portrait. They let him into the now-closed Champions Bar and Grill, where the portrait hung. Acevedo took a picture and tweeted it at Fahrenthold. As the reporter put it, unless the Champions Bar and Grill was used as a soup kitchen in its off hours, having the portrait, which was purchased by Trump’s foundation for $10,000, hanging in his for-profit golf club was a violation of the law. “What might have taken me a year, if ever, I was able to verify in a day,” Fahrenthold explained. And the process had occurred in public, fully transparent, and in a way that was bullet proof.
Not all stories will lend themselves to collaborative or open journalism, but far more than most journalists realize do. And this is the height of the Journalism of Verification, making use of the new tools, just as the telegraph made it possible for news to travel in minutes rather than weeks.
Nearly twenty years ago, Bill Kovach and I wrote that the original meaning of objectivity when it entered journalism from social science was closer to transparency than what many people realize today. Coming at a time when intellectuals were becoming more wary of unconscious bias and subjectivity, it was a call for journalists to adopt more disciplined and transparent methods of reporting—precisely because they themselves could never be objective or neutral. Over decades, that original meaning was misunderstood. Technology has made that original or recovered meaning of objectivity now possible, and more urgent than ever.
If reportorial journalism is going to stand out, it has to be more reportorial, doubling down on verification, and making transparency its hallmark.
Journalists must invent new story forms that reveal the skeleton of their reporting, raise the bar of verification, and show consumers why they should trust them.
No matter how reporting is gathered, the presentation of reportorial news also must change. The atomic unit of news in the past was the “news story,” the lovely narrative, beautifully written. The reporter’s work was completed with the phrase, “I’ve filed,” meaning they had written their narrative and filed it to an editor. Today that is insufficient. That lovely narrative a reporter produces will be curated, truncated and summarized. That can be a valuable echo that spreads what they have discovered, but it also means the narrative itself is only one form of their reporting and not necessarily its most essential component. The new atomic unit of news must actually be the reporting—what the story learned—and the proof that establishes it. News people must now adopt forms, templates, and structures that make that proof–the evidence–become more explicit.
News people are just beginning to experiment with these forms, and may still chafe because there is no simple answer. But it is useful to imagine some possible templates. Consider a written new story that is accompanied by a box, for instance, with five questions: What is new about this story? What is the evidence? Who are the sources? What proof do they offer? What is still missing or unknown?
These are the hidden questions that editors ask reporters and reporters ask themselves as they work. If these “editor questions” were made explicit to the public, rather than embedded only in the narrative, there would be two important effects. First, having to answer these questions explicitly would raise the bar for reporters and force them to flesh out their evidence. If their sourcing isn’t strong enough, that will be exposed in their answers. Second, and just as important, these new templates will begin to guide readers toward becoming more discriminating news consumers. Rather than teaching “news literacy” in a classroom, it will become something that is living in the stories we encounter.
The questions that establish the proof of a given news event may vary from one news event to the next. A story that is written about a presidential address, of which there is video footage, for instance, requires different proof than a story establishing Russian hacking of the election. But the notion that the reporter has not only done a thorough job of reporting, but is sharing that proof with the reader in a series of questions they can click on and see for themselves will both improve the reporting we get and our trust in it.
At first, some may think this one seems old fashioned. After all, haven’t the distinctions between news and analysis hopelessly blurred? All news contains interpretation now. And some newer operations, such as The New York Times’ Upshot or Vox, are so analytical in nature, or so grounded in a kind of academic analysis of data rather than conventional reporting methods, that the old definitions seem obsolete.
If you look at how people consume news today, and the problems of confusing propaganda and news, these labels are actually more necessary than ever. Most of our news is no longer consumed in easily identified formats—a front page for news and an opinion page for opinion. Inside our mobile streams, as we click through related links, news stories and opinion stories are mixed. And on social platforms, all content is combined. Journalists need to help readers make these distinctions, not give up on them because they are not as clean cut as they once were.
And it is clear from data that the public craves such distinction. Fully 59 percent of adults tell the Pew Research Center they prefer it when the press reports just the facts without much interpretation (and that figure is 71 percent among Trump supporters). An even larger number, 69 percent of adults, say they want the press to do fact checking of politicians’ claims.Thus, clear and accurate labels will be a way of strengthening trust.
Rather than give up on labels, news organizations should double down on them. They should embed a label of “News Story,” “News Analysis,” or “Opinion Piece” right into the content in such a way that it is evident when a piece is linked to on social media. News organizations: Help the user navigate. Do not surrender because your old methods of distinguishing content (with sections of a magazine or newspaper) no longer apply.
If the public wants the press to function as a watchdog, and the press itself aspires to the role, then it needs to make sure it is watching what matters and barking when it sees a genuine intruder, not just a shadow. Today, when those in power enjoy more direct ways of communicating, they also have more ways of distracting the press and casting those shadows.
Tweets are only one example, but a popular one now given that they are the president-elect’s most frequent form of communication. Some tweets matter, and reveal something important. Many do not and may be calculated efforts at diverting the press’ attention, a form of digital sleight of hand. We need journalists to know the difference.
Ultimately, as any veteran of politics will tell you, we must watch what leaders do more than what they say. It is vital that the press mind the cookie jar. We need journalists to watch for public malfeasance, stealing, corruption, law breaking, private enrichment, rewarding friends, and abuse of power. Even in the era of declining trust in media, this role—the journalist as investigator—still gets high marks. Abuse of power is not a partisan or ideological issue. It is a moral one—and one citizens in both parties care about.
But to keep their eye on that prize, the press needs to not be diverted by the magician’s patter.
Watching what matters also means maintaining an open mind to the facts of the case. In the case of a Trump presidency, an open mind means being open to the facts as they unfold that he may be different as president than he was as a candidate. It also means being vigilant of and open to the possibility that he is a demagogue who will subvert democratic open government.
We need journalists to keep their cool.
One of the many watersheds in the 2016 campaign came when The New York Times used the word “lie” in a front-page story about Donald Trump in September. An outpouring of commentary followed, largely among liberal voices, about how the media “finally found their voice,” as Paul Krugman put it. Times political editor Carolyn Ryan told the paper’s public editor that the Times would use the words lie and liar sparingly. Not all misstatements and exaggerations were lies. There had to be “intentionality.”
That same week, NPR took fire for a story in which it said that Trump had misstated facts about a meeting in Detroit with a black pastor. New York University’s often emphatic professor Jay Rosen berated NPR for not calling Trump a “lying son of a b****.” NPR news Vice President Mike Oreskes wrote a column explaining why it had chosen carefully not to distinguish its fact checking and factual reporting by dressing it in explosive language that would not be missed: “We want our reporting to reach as many people as possible. It is a well-established piece of social science research that if you start out with an angry tone and say something a listener disagrees with, they will tune out the facts. But if you present the facts calmly and without a tone of editorializing you substantially increase the chance that people will hear you out.”
Fahrenthold at the Post agrees: If you scream and are emotional, he told me, “people will distrust the information and think you are biased.”
Time, and fake news, have shown that Oreskes and Fahrenthold are right. Not only does factualism require tonal restraint., but becoming hyperventilated also plays into the hands of politicians who want to disarm and weaken the press by dismissing them as the opposition. The way to elevate factual reporting is to build the facts into a self-evident citadel that cannot be assaulted, not to adorn the citadel with flagrant slogans.
My liberal friends will chafe at this. So will some journalists. But to call something a falsehood and then offer the evidence in a clear and mounting way is a powerful and dispassionate way to dispel the lie. If the reportorial media slip into the heated language of the commentary media, they will lose their footing.
It is the same calm we want from any professional. We do not want the surgeon hyperventilating because of the risks of the operation she is about to perform. Or the prosecutor to become hysterical because of the brutality of the crime he is trying. We want them to keep their professional cool.
Finally, it is no longer enough for journalists to simply gather and assemble the facts—even if they do so with the public as partners and by using new story forms that are more transparent.
Journalists need to understand the way that information flows. We need them to understand the information platforms that will carry their reports and the networks of people who will share that information. It is not enough to build the ships. We need to understand the ocean they will navigate.
That is precisely what those who want to pass along propaganda and falsehood are doing. Uninterested in gathering facts, they have spent their time instead studying instead how information moves.
The goal of fake news is not to make people believe the lie. It is to make them doubt all news. And the reason it has gained ground is because its practitioners study the way that networks work, reverse engineer the algorithms of social media, and put their lies into those streams in ways that are effective.
The bearers of fact need to be no less sophisticated.
In the end, these seven suggestions can be boiled down to three fairly simple ideas. Objectivity in news never meant neutrality. It always meant becoming more transparent and disciplined about how you gather the news. The responsibilities of the press have not changed. But the way we need the press lives up to those responsibilities, and the forms in which news reports come, must change markedly.
Ultimately, the idea that we now live in a “post-truth” or “post-fact” world, and the belief that the struggle between fact and propaganda is a new phenomenon, are both wrong. Trump’s election was not a referendum on the stickiness of facts. Nor was the election a contest between a candidate who lacked veracity and another who didn’t. It isn’t that simple. To the contrary, we saw more fact checking being done in this election, and more engagement with it by audiences, than ever. But the point of fact checking is not that the candidate who lies least should win. It is for voters to process a candidates’ veracity, and the implications of that, into the relative choice they have to make.
Finally, the challenges before reportorial journalism today—fake news, misinformation, confirmation bias, manipulative political leaders—are not problems you fix and then forget like a leaky pipe. They are conditions with which you contend perpetually, like crime. And such conditions require constant change and evolution. In other words, this is not the time for journalists to lose their nerve or lose faith in their professional principles. But neither should they confuse those principles with old and outworn practices.