A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

“Democratized platforms have not always respected how much people crave expertise, even as they resent it.”

Sociologists are much better at describing than predicting. But it’s hard not to imagine the logical consequences of things already in motion.

tressie-mcmillan-cottomIn 2017, the legacy media’s legitimacy crisis will come to a head. The recent presidential election revealed what people have felt for some time: Media fragmentation and democratized platforms have undermined social trust in institutions. Politicos may argue about whether the left or right is in greater disarray, but the media will be as convicted as political bodies. Democratized platforms have not always respected how much people crave expertise, even as they resent it. Media that manages to inspire trust have a moment to capitalize on the “post-fact” landscape. Which leads me to my next assessment:

In 2017, the media who gets the “post-fact” media platform right will be the platforms that take diversity seriously. The impulse after this election is to double-down on heterogeneity and to eschew “identity politics,” a weaponized term that really just means people whose visible identities delimit their civil liberties. That impulse is short-sighted. Diverse newsrooms don’t just better understand racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Diverse newsrooms better understand working-class whites, immigrants, and middle-class white elites. Diverse newsrooms have thinkers who can hold two competing ideas at the same time, and research shows that people from a variety of backgrounds that have different experiences of race, class, and gender best understand the nuances of white, middle-class normativity. The successful media platform in our post-fact reality will be a diverse media platform that challenges our assumptions smartly, inspiring trust again in media.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty associate of the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

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