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The rise of tribal journalism

“In many parts of the world, tribal journalism compensates for a seeming fragmentation of society by nurturing a sense of belonging and exercising tribal solidarity.”

Amidst a multifaceted transformation of the news media industry, 2019 is going to see more of what I would like to call, in the absence of a better term, tribal journalism.

For a long time, we journalism researchers and educators have taught a kind of journalism that is intellectually sober and relentlessly beneficial to society. In professional and public normative discourse, news-making used to be the business of objective, neutral, and detached reporting. Other forms of journalism have always existed, of course, many of which could be subsumed under the label of tribal journalism. Tribal journalism addresses its audiences less as members of a larger, however loosely defined “public” than as members of a group with specific, collectively shared practices, values, identities, and experiences — that is, as members of a tribe.

To be clear, I am not talking about the native press, nor about news produced for people in tribal areas. I am not using the notion of “tribe” in the classic anthropological sense. Rather, I apply the concept of tribe in a similar way it is used in the literature on digital tribes, where, as a metaphor, it refers to groups and communities with shared interests.

French sociologist Michel Maffesoli, in his 1996 book on The Time of the Tribes, has argued that increased individualization and eroding networks of solidarity have led to the formation of new tribes. He describes these new tribes as “communities of ideas” characterized by elective sociality, fluidity, occasional gatherings, and dispersal. They may condense around a set of practices (e.g., related to consumption, brands, and leisure activities), values (e.g., connected to political ideologies and religions), identities (e.g., along national or ethnic boundaries), or experiences (e.g., of discrimination, marginalization, and disenfranchisement).

It is remarkable that Maffesoli developed his ideas long before social media changed the world. Journalism has already adapted to this new mediascape through increased prominence of tribal journalism, and it will continue to do so in the years to come. Tribal journalism is not aspiring to the now seemingly old-fashioned norms of objectivity, neutrality, and detachment. It is deliberately subjective, partisan, assertive, and socially committed. It caters to the expectations and preconceptions of the tribe it is serving.

Early tribal journalism was a niche market. Its forms addressed very specific subgroups of the audience based on lifestyle habits, such as communities of golfers or Star Trek fans. In recent years, tribal journalism successfully took root in political journalism once partisan news turned out to be a highly profitable business. Ongoing processes of increased social fragmentation and polarization have finally propelled tribal journalism even further into the professional mainstream.

And it is thriving. In many parts of the world, tribal journalism compensates for a seeming fragmentation of society by nurturing a sense of belonging and exercising tribal solidarity. It rhetorically reduces an over-complex world to a totalitarian reality consisting of simple and formulaic truths.

In 2019, audiences will be exposed to a greater quantity and variety of tribal journalism than ever before. Democracy will experience another difficult year.

Thomas Hanitzsch is a journalism and media researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University of Munich.

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