A rebirth of populist journalism

“If there’s one thing that 2017 could hope to emulate, it’s the muckrakers’ ability to produce journalism that is genuinely concerned with the interest of the people, fiercely adversarial but never personalized.”

A prediction is always a commentary on the current situation in disguise, but this year, our disguise won’t fool anyone. So bear with us as we pretend to say something about the future that is pretty much about the present, and, even worse, as we try to find some answers in the past.

juliette-de-maeyer-dominique-trudelAs everyone interested in journalism, we will enter in 2017 with a deep concern: During the past few months, news media have acutely failed to triumph over disinformation, fake news, and rumors. One of the central tenets of journalism — that a news report must be somehow related to something real, to facts that actually exist in the world — has been wiped out with such ease and nonchalance that it still seems incredible. Is that all there is? Nobody cares about facts? What is real or not doesn’t matter, at all? That failure has happened despite recent or long-lasting trends that made us believe that journalism was well equipped to inform citizens with facts. You name it: data-driven reporting, fact-checking, precision journalism, visualizations, political calculus with Nate Silveresque brio…all these exciting and innovative practices that were supposed to push journalism towards more accuracy.

Facing such a deep epistemological crisis, journalism could try to do more of the same, and work hard on an improved version of what Daniel Kreiss has labeled “administrative journalism.” More facts, more dots on the chart, more experts, more granular maps, more polls, more data, better data — all expected to inform rationally-minded citizens. But the risk of having quality and high-precision journalism about which nobody cares seems greater than ever. During Brexit or the Trump campaign, plenty of excellent journalism with excellent facts was available, just a few clicks away. But being available wasn’t enough; what was lacking was a public interested in those facts — a real democratic public, one that is actively constituted around issues and concerned by those issues. Consequently, we need to take a deep look into the current epistemological abyss and, at least partially, accept that news media exist in a world where showing the facts, just the facts, is not enough. Among other things, accepting that could mean that in 2017, populist journalism needs to be reinvented.

Populism is a nasty word. But its primary meaning — working in the interest of the people instead of that of the elite — is not horrific. Populist journalism, and even quality populist journalism, has existed in the past. The muckrakers of the Progressive Era perfectly exemplify that: Their reporting was sensational and rabidly adversarial, politically engaged with a reformist agenda — going against the grain of what would become the dominant ideal of “objective journalism” in the 1920s — but for all that, they didn’t disregard facts. Their populist reporting style was close to the interest and language of the working-class people, but that is not incompatible with accuracy, verification, and facticity. Actually, muckrakers cared for more than pieces of information. Their “exposés” not only unveiled facts, but also stories.

Recent comments about the outlook that the Trump presidency brings to journalism have gloomily argued that facts are out of fashion, because what matters is the story. Don’t worry about the truth, the rationale goes, and just trust another gut-wrenching narrative. That disconnect between facts and stories, however, is not necessary, as the muckraking movement shows. Lincoln Steffens, the famous muckraker, was fascinated by facts to such an extent that he wanted to push facticity to its highest degree. His whole career, during the first decades of the 1900s, was a pursuit of what he called “scientific journalism.” Did that mean some arid, quantified, bare-naked version of journalism full of data points and percentages of fact-checked truth? Quite the opposite, as Steffens simply wrote stories which were griping and entertaining, sensational and concerned with social justice. His obsession for scientific journalism took the shape of an interest in “systems” and “patterns” — that is, going beyond individual facts and instead looking for relations between those facts. A story, in his view, is achieved when facts are assembled within relations.

In his own way, Steffens achieved what John Dewey and Franklin Ford, only a few years before, envisioned to be the role of journalism. In a document written in 1893 that sketches an ambitious (and unattainable) project of a countrywide news system, the philosopher (Dewey) and the journalist (Ford) describe journalism as the “organized movement of the whole intelligence or fact.” The registration of life through newspapers is not enough, they argue; facts have to be put within relations in what they extravagantly call the “movement of intelligence.” By doing so, journalism would be able to reach the dissatisfied public, as this holistic approach that weaves facts into broader stories is simply dazzling — “We recover the true meaning of the word sensational now obscured by the falsely sensational. We undertake to be sensational to the last degree. It is, of course, only possible to compete with the present ‘sensational’ newspapers by being more sensational than they. Getting back to the true meaning of things it is seen that the craving for sensation on the part of the public is the demand for intelligence itself.” In Dewey and Ford’s view, the sensational is achieved when journalism draws connections between people and society, between the “integrity of the social body” and “the welfare of the individual,” between isolated facts and an all-encompassing inquiry: “the local fact is everywhere dealt within the light of the whole, thus compelling the highest sensations.”

Steffens fully realized that he himself was part of a larger political and economic “system” that was corrupted. Identifying with ordinary people, he considered his task to assemble facts into stories that were compelling and challenging for the system. He wrote pieces about rigged city government and corruption in Wall Street that brought change to the system. Of course, looking at Steffens today, it’s easy to paint a picture of muckrakers as honest reformists and brilliant storytellers only concerned with the truth — a naive and misleading picture of a glorified past, as Steffens himself or muckraking in general need to be taken with a pinch of salt. But if there’s one thing that 2017 could hope to emulate, it’s the muckrakers’ ability to produce journalism that is genuinely concerned with the interest of the people, fiercely adversarial but never personalized (fighting corruption is not about replacing one man, Steffens believed, but about understanding the system), and obsessed with connecting facts together into a broader inquiry. In a way, Steffens’s fight against corruption echoes with what is so worrying at the dawn of 2017: a criticism of the elite that blends way too easily in conspiracy theories and hate of “the system.” A populist journalism could try to channel the public’s appetite for such criticism, by instead contributing to the understanding of the system, with reform and change in mind. In Dewey and Ford’s words, journalism could then relentlessly remind us that “the social fact is the sensational thing.”

Juliette De Maeyer is an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal. Dominique Trudel is a researcher at CNRS in France.

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