A responsible press criticism

“I know there is a difference between, let’s say, sound political economy scholarship that describes the structure of ownership of commercial mainstream media outlets and angry tweetstorms that denounce the corrupt MSM.”

For all the anxiety it brought, 2017 was a productive year for media and journalism scholars, journalism reviews, “future-of-the-news” experts, and everyone that is, in one way or another, taking part in media criticism writ large. The whole “fake news,” “post-truth” debacle has had at least one merit: bringing media criticism to the forefront, reinvigorating debates about the role of journalism in public life, galvanizing discussions about the failures, errors, glitches, and malfunctions — let’s be honest here, it’s rarely about the triumphs — of media in our democratic life.

As a media scholar, writing on a website that believes it needs to help journalism to figure it all out, I can only rejoice in the fact that our most important conversations are not (only) about the latest technological fads anymore, but about core issues such as media effects, democracy, power, or propaganda. Those questions matter; it’s nice to see them in the spotlight.

There is something unsettling, though, in this sudden renewed popularity of press criticism, as it reshuffles the cards in a weird way. With Donald Trump being one of the loudest megaphones of a certain press criticism — one that relentlessly attacks mainstream media as being corrupt, manipulated and manipulative — we find ourselves in a strange position when it comes to doing what we do, that is, dissecting how the news media works. There’s a fine line between efforts to describe, in realist terms, how the news industry operates (with its ideals never fully satisfied, its shortcomings and shortcuts, its influences and limitations, its ideological underpinnings and its power dynamics) and downright conspiracy theories fueled by populism and anger at the so-called media elites. I know there is a difference between, let’s say, sound political economy scholarship that describes the structure of ownership of commercial mainstream media outlets and angry tweetstorms that denounce the corrupt MSM. But that line is sometimes blurred, in the cacophony of outrage, moral panics and genuine concern that characterizes today’s press criticism.

So 2018 may be the time to figure out how to perform responsible press criticism. Press criticism that can speak to concerns about the role of media in public life, misinformation, and the interplay between media, politics, and business — but also understands that recrimination and denunciation are not enough. Press criticism that does not, however, respond to vicious attacks on press freedom by listening to the siren call of professional protectionism and self-righteousness. In other words, responsible press criticism that would try to hold the press accountable — just like any form of power — while being more than merely adversarial, vitriolic, or admonitory.

How can we achieve that? As it is often the case, we’re not starting with a blank slate. There’s more than a century of press criticism that we could draw inspiration from. One example among others is George Seldes (1890-1995), the famous American investigative journalist, press critic and editor of the weekly newsletter In Fact: An Antidote to Falsehoods in the Daily Press from 1940 to 1950. Seldes, a self-proclaimed liberal, lived and worked through troubled times — two world wars, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Cold War, and McCarthyism. His exposés spared no one: media advertisers and press tycoons, censorship, distortion, and all kinds of attempts to mislead the public, but also Soviet communists, big tobacco companies, the whole American industrial system, and, of course, Nazis and fascists.

It’s not that his outrage was indiscriminate and all-encompassing, but the press criticism that was at the core of In Fact was part of a wider indignation that cannot be separated from issues that run deep into society: politics, social justice, or capitalism. Seldes was not ranting in the comfortable environment of a specialized conversation between media pundits and future-of-the-news experts; he wanted to pick up a fight with everything at the same time, in front of the public.

But the most impressive feat of Seldes’ career and long life is that he never turned into a cynic. He wasn’t criticizing the press out of sterile anger, populism, or the hope of commercial or political gain. He did so out of genuine belief that there’s something to be done about it, and with the old-fashioned certitude that a newspaper can move the world. His hopes about the role of journalism in society were modest, but firm: “to get the facts, and present them as truthfully as human frailty permits.”

Juliette De Maeyer is an assistant professor at Université de Montréal.

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Jake Levine   The return to now

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Burt Herman   Things get real

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Paul Ford   Go global

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story