Reform journalistic practices to regain the American public’s trust
As America grapples with the consequences of electing an orange moron, the collective news media has had more than a little navel-gazing to do. Dozens of thinkpiece postmortems these last few weeks have questioned how almost all mainstream reporters got it so very wrong. How could we lull liberal America into such complacency, all the while ignoring an invisible conservative revolt?
A few answers have bubbled up. Facebook and Twitter keep us all in our own partisan bubbles. The slow death of local newspapers has left anywhere that is not New York City, Los Angeles or Washington D.C. without enough journalists covering their local issues, leaving the rest of us without a metric of what’s driving the local populations. Broadcast media has dumbed us down so much that social media can sell us stories that are not even true. The network executives only saw how much their viewership went up when they were broadcasting Trump and were not thinking about the implications of all that free airtime.
All of this is true, and all of it is disturbing. But I think there is one more key component that is not being discussed enough, since it’s too hard for journalists to swallow: Fundamentally, politicians do not need reporters anymore.
There was a time when newspaper articles or broadcast stories were the only way for politicians to get their message out, making them see the men and women dogging them with tough questions as a necessary evil in our democratic system. But now, our president-elect can just tweet out his messaging to millions of followers and, in turn, prompt reporters to republish those tweets for an even wider audience. Even Hillary Clinton, a longtime technophobe, understood that her press corps was neither the best nor the only way to reach her electorate and, in particular, the young voters who drove the Obama coalition. She gave almost no interviews on the campaign trail but was sure happy to talk about her pets and her daughter on the campaign-produced “With Her” podcast.
Nowadays, politicians can send out only the messaging they want to, without risking hard questions in a press conference or interview. Everyone harrumphing about the candidates avoiding press conferences this year need only ask themselves, “Why should they bother?”
Again, this is not the sole explanation for why so much of the media failed so badly this year. It’s a component that wouldn’t have anywhere near as much impact were it not for other issues, like fracturing, public distrust and the death of the print model. The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek all produced fantastic reporting about Trump’s conflicts of interest and past business practices, but judging by the election results, it went widely unread by the people it might have influenced.
But this is only one aspect of the story, one which will only become more pronounced in the years ahead. We consider journalism the fourth estate since it is supposedly an indispensable aspect of how government works, but if there are alternative ways for the powerful to promote their messaging, journalism becomes all but superfluous. Couple that with a failing business model and geographic centralization, and the future looks grim for political reporting.
It’s not like many Americans will weep to see reporters struggling, when a Gallup poll last year found only four in 10 Americans trust the mainstream media at all — tying 2014 and 2012 for the lowest levels of confidence on record. And sure, a recent ZenithOptimedia report found that the average American consumes media for more than eight hours a day, but not all of that is the news. Most of that consumption comes from the internet, moreover. How many people are willing to pay for their internet news, particularly when they can gather the same core political messaging for themselves?
So how does the media make itself relevant again? The easiest answer is in that aforementioned reporting from the Times and Post: They broke many key investigative stories, from the Trump tax returns to the Access Hollywood tape. But investigation is a costly, sometimes fruitless endeavor, and even these titans are feeling more and more of the pinch from dwindling ad revenues.
Another option is in rising stars like Vox and, yes, FiveThirtyEight. The best pieces from these kinds of sites sift through numbers and raw data to pull out key information for contextualizing our political reality. Their writers are also exactly the kind of snooty liberal elites that the Trump electorate just rebelled against, and as many a heartbroken Nate Silver fan can tell you, the data can be wrong.
Maybe what we need most is a return to the basics: finding stories that no one else is looking at or looking at wider stories from unexamined angles. Actually stationing reporters in key areas across the country, or at least finding stringers living there who one can work with. Reporters have more competition than ever in who shapes the nation’s cultural discourse — anyone with a social media account can potentially see their post go viral. But there is no way to prevent or predict that, so there is really no benefit to letting it influence one’s behavior.
Reporters need to prove to the American people that they still matter by doing the job better than they ever have before. Here’s hoping that the good stuff will be heard above the noise.