The return of the gatekeepers

“Walter Lippmann was right. There is no substitute for experts in a field, parsing information and serving as the arbiters of truth, and reifying our faith in a shared reality, a shared body of facts.”

For those of us in journalism, media, and political communication who’ve spent the last decade touting the democratic possibilities of digital technologies, 2016 has been a tough year.

danna-youngCritical of the dangers of the consolidation of media ownership, we’ve railed against the powerful, centralized gatekeepers of the past. We’ve scoffed at early-20th-century writings by Lippmann, Bernays, and others and their patronizing way they referred to the masses needing to be instructed, guided, or molded.

We’ve cheered for the citizen empowerment that would accompany the downstream migration of control away from concentrated power-holders into the hands of citizens, consumers, and audiences.

We’ve celebrated the foresight of elected officials who, in the 1980s, understood the democratic potential of digital technologies and made a case for funding their development.

We’ve pointed to Web 2.0 as the ultimate realization of the potential of digital technologies to empower individuals to create, talk back, connect, share, and disseminate original unfiltered content.

But in our optimism and full-throated endorsement of the possibilities of these wondrous technologies, it seems we also lost sight of a fundamental truth. To quote self-made supervillain, Buddy, from the 2004 Pixar film The Incredibles: “When everyone’s super…no one is.”

The rise in digital technologies has been accompanied by trends that are fueling the decentralization of control across our cultural and political institutions — from the declining power of political parties, to a growing lack of faith in traditional journalistic institutions, to public skepticism towards science and intellectual authority.

The result is a giant power vacuum that’s being filled with noise, flattery, and disinformation.

Even the digital platforms whose entire philosophies are rooted in the promise of decentralization are having to face the reality that the pendulum may have swung too far — away from concentrated power in the hands of a few towards distributed power in the hands of all.

Facebook is struggling with the epidemic of false information and “fake news” disseminated through its worldwide platform, and is actively resisting its new identity as news source rather than distribution platform. Twitter is recognizing that its platform is being used as a mechanism for the spread of hate and is being forced to respond before it loses more users and more revenue.

What’s becoming clear in the aftermath of the 2016 election is that it’s true: “When everyone’s powerful…no one is.” And citizens don’t like feeling this way.

Hence the post-election spike in paid subscriptions to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and the positive trend in Washington Post subscriptions over the past year. Hence the increased public attention to the importance of accountability journalism and the need to pay for it.

The idea of bringing back some form of elite gatekeepers to engage in a check on what is real and what is not — what is important and what is not, what is true and what is not — harkens back to a time and a paradigm that many of us have criticized as elitist or patronizing. But where we find ourselves now is a far more dangerous place. Yes, back then, power was concentrated in the hands a few individuals, entities, and institutions who set the public’s agenda and oriented the public’s attention to a handful of key issues. But these individuals, entities, and institutions were themselves professionalized and formally trained. They had a code of ethics and guiding principles. And while scholars lamented the hierarchical nature of the information environment, the reality is that trust in these institutions was high.

When Walter Cronkite said “And that’s the way it is,” people didn’t say: “No, it isn’t.”

With trust and authority came a shared body of knowledge, a shared set of facts. With shared facts came the opportunity for public debate and shared governance.

And while Facebook considers new algorithms or crowdsourcing solutions to help prevent the spread of fake news, what they’ll soon discover is that although contrary to their philosophical orientation to the information environment, Walter Lippmann was right. There is no substitute for experts in a field, parsing information and serving as the arbiters of truth, and reifying our faith in a shared reality, a shared body of facts.

Which is why 2017 will be the year journalism and distribution platforms will embrace the reality that no, not everyone is super.

Dannagal G. Young is an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware.

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

Mario García   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Richard J. Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Errin Haines   Chaos or community?

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

Trushar Barot   API or die

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up