We won’t do enough

“We’ll debate and have panels, and talk past each other.”

In years past, most Nieman Lab annual predictions correctly centered around how journalism will grapple with rapidly changing technology in the coming year. How would we adapt to digital, social, mobile, VR, and other advances that affect the distribution, reporting, and nature of news? We knew these changes would affect the industry profoundly, and many used this space to offer thoughtful and accurate predictions on how.

carrie-brown-smithBut in 2017, I know I’m not alone in thinking that our focus will turn away from technology to even weightier issues surrounding truth, trust, and even the survival of our democracy, which depends on a free and vibrant press. How can we combat “fake news” or, more accurately, propaganda? How can we do our jobs when both the left and the right are increasingly vociferous in their condemnation of our work? (And no, having everybody hate us doesn’t mean we are “doing it right.”) How do we do our jobs with an administration that is openly hostile to the press?

The Fourth Estate is in crisis, and as I’ve written previously, I am desperately hoping that we respond with a roar, not a whimper. We must fearlessly call out lies and propaganda despite the relentless pressure to be stenographers. We must commit to listening and empathy, and not just to the usual suspects — and by this I do not mean coming to the absurd conclusion that our biggest coverage blindspot involved white men. We must continue to punch up, but also spend more time on getting a bottom-up understanding of the concerns and goals of the people we serve. We must double-down on diversity in newsrooms and the internal communication that makes it possible for different perspectives to be heard. We must not just continue to rigorously check the facts but explain to the public how we do so and why it matters.

But this is supposed to be a prediction, not an admonition. Will we do this?

I’m afraid the answer is “not enough.” We’ll debate and have panels, and talk past each other. Many will pound the lectern haranguing us on their rigid, intellectually bereft notions of what objectivity means in journalism, even though years ago The Elements of Journalism helped us understand what decades of great scholars have long known, that objectivity is a method, not some kind of magical spell that somehow removes any biases from individual reporters and editors. We will fight false equivalence, but we’ll still see it emerge on many fronts, especially cable news.

There will be many brave journalists — some of them my former students, if I may so brag — that will be working to not just tell stories and uncover wrongdoing but also to find creative ways to use their skills to work with communities and not just for them to solve problems. They will be working not just at startups but also working inside larger, more traditional news organizations, trying to change the culture and think about new approaches to news. I can only hope they succeed. I’ll be working as hard as I can to be sure that they do.

Carrie Brown-Smith is director of the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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