Skepticism and narcissism

“We all know the old journalism saw: ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’ Our moms aren’t the problem. No, if 2016 and 2017 have taught us anything, it’s that our passion for journalism’s flattering mythology only hurts us.”

2018 is the year when our skepticism has to be stronger than our narcissism.

You remember Narcissus, right? The hot young Greek who fell so passionately in love with his reflection that he wasted away and died? All that remains of Narcissus is his namesake flower — something strictly ornamental and meant to be cut down.

We all know the old journalism saw: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Our moms aren’t the problem. No, if 2016 and 2017 have taught us anything, it’s that our passion for journalism’s flattering mythology only hurts us.

And yes, we realize that it’s hard to think about self-deception, particularly this year — when the president and his press secretaries have spread lies deliberately and continued to castigate the press in a campaign to undermine the very nature of truth and the institution of journalism.

But that doesn’t excuse us from the work; we can’t demand an honest accounting of anyone else before we give journalism the same examination.

Here are some of the places we expect change:

Myth 1: We respect audiences. “The culture of journalism breeds disdain for the people we’re meant to be serving,” wrote Jenn Brandel and Andrew Haeg in 2016. Journalists are privileged Americans (33 percent of Americans have college degrees, but 90 percent of journalists do, and as Joshua Benton reported in 2016, an outsized share of digital journalism jobs are concentrated in a few big metro areas).

Heather Bryant’s talk at LION17 this past October was brutally honest:

When we look at what is published, what do we see?

Headlines that talk about the effects of policies on “the poor.” As someone who grew up intensely poor, that is not what we called ourselves. And most don’t. Who is that headline for?

We see stories that lump various groups into monolithic blocks like gun-owners, farmers, working-class and play to stereotypes.

And we’ve all experienced the culture, maybe even perpetuated it ourselves, where audiences are talked down to and about, commenters are called idiots and journalists don’t hesitate to tweet 140 character think pieces about how people don’t care about “real” news anymore.

If we’re going to be faithful to the duty of our profession, when economic inequality is greater than ever and issues of race, gender and politics are at the front of everyone’s mind, we have to do better.

Nick Quah also points out that we can be pretty rude when writing about the youngs, which has got to change. And ProPublica’s Ariana Tobin predicts that exhausted news consumers will begin checking out in 2018 because journalists haven’t respected their time, either.

Myth 2: Our hiring and pay scales reward quality. Sometimes, “quality” is just shorthand for “what we already know we like.” That lazy lie turns into shorthand — we hire people who remind us of ourselves, or from journalism “power schools” without examining what they’re actually teaching in these disrupted days. We do it because it makes life easy, but the perpetual motion machine boxes out people whose skills, knowledge bases, and fluencies we need.

Myth 3: Journalism is such a great job that we don’t need work-life balance. Journalism (in big markets and small) still depends on people who will work at unpaid internships or who will pour off-the-clock hours into their jobs — and we burn them out. The ones who survive their early careers to make it to parenthood are adversely affected by the unnecessary inflexibility of the work (as are people who live outside of major metro areas, where most jobs are concentrated.)

Myth 4: He’s a “good guy.” Maybe he’s not a good guy. Maybe he’s just a lucrative guy or a powerful guy. Maybe we shouldn’t protect the crude, vulgar, grabby, toxic, or violent in our own ranks if we want any credibility to address those problems elsewhere.

Myth 5: The stories that matter are the stories that matter to us. If you go by the media’s coverage of #metoo, you’d think that the people most at risk of sexual harassment and assault in America are actresses and journalists, mostly white. Once again, we’re being lazy — when NPR did a content audit of its magazine shows a few years ago, they discovered that the people most likely to be interviewed for stories worked in government, entertainment, media, and academia. Let’s not be surprised that our #metoo coverage has focused on celebrities in precisely those arenas. Again.

Myth 6: We want our newsrooms to be diverse at every level of the newsroom (and not just entry-level jobs.) Why does diversity often stop at the masthead? The masthead doesn’t want to leave their jobs. If we want diverse newsrooms, people currently in power are going to have to willingly accelerate the pace of their own obsolescence. There’s not an ever-expanding slate of top gigs. Someone’s going to have to go.

Myth 7: We can be trusted with user privacy. We ask readers to trust us, and we install trackers that follow them around the Internet — and install third-party applications that collect data and we don’t think about how that data can be sold or breached (hello Disqus) or resold or bundled and then sold. We ask readers to trust us, but we don’t think about ethical consent. And we rely on social platforms for distribution (maybe not for long, Neha Gandhi predicts), but we no longer understand how their complex algorithms work (and neither do they).

Myth 8: We’re objective! Objectivity is only objective and neutrality is only neutral for the status quo — that’s going to look like white people, and men, and Ivy League and traditionally credentialed people. Not those “whose very livelihoods and safety are matters of public debate,” as Lewis Wallace put it last May. Let’s be real skeptics — especially toward the systems that benefit we who already have megaphones and a little power. And let’s trust and support people in the newsroom who have a particular insight about how power structures affect their communities.

Myth 9: We definitely don’t think of community journalism as the minor leagues. This isn’t true everywhere — there are lots of partners and particularly funders who are focused on this space — but a great deal of money tends to stop at the ivory towers that work on the problem of community journalism, or in the production of endless toolkits and white papers and parachuting reporting fellowships. If we care about community journalism, we should pay community journalists in a way that makes it possible to live, work, and stay in their communities. Let’s actively reach out to support their applications and access to the grants, fellowships, and prizes that pour down on the major market news orgs. (Do you know how hard it is for a community journalist to find out about these opportunities? Or to make time and have the money to apply during contest season? If you worked in a small-market newsroom, you probably do. Otherwise, you can’t even imagine both how hard it is, and how much it means.)

Myth 10: We can’t be replaced. Investigative journalism seems safe for now. But those who are doing same-as-it-ever-was stories — and local news — had better figure out how to use bots or start regarding them as competition. (Quartz’s Sarah Kessler has some good news, though — it doesn’t have to be as scary as you think.)

Myth 11: People who criticize journalism are dangerous to journalism. Look, we are not trying to dismantle journalism; we want to practice it well (in almost the exact way that Juliette De Maeyer outlines in her prediction, actually). We don’t want to put arguments in the hands of people who spout democratic values while spray-painting anarchist symbols over the very idea of verifiable facts; we want to derail those arguments by demonstrating that they’re false.

We think you want that, too. And that’s why we think this prediction really could come true.

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