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Think 2018 was bad? Wait until you see 2019

“I think the end of 2018 is the top of the rollercoaster track. The descent, which we are not ready for, is going to involve a lot of screaming as we hurtle towards Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 U.S. elections.”

Predictions feel like an odd thing to do, especially when the forecast is greyer and gloomier than the current climate. Nonetheless, I will attempt to provide a prediction about the future of news and journalism in the U.S. and U.K. in 2019. I’ve often been accused of trading in gloom and doom, so in keeping with my reputation as a doom and gloom merchant, 2019 is going to be a struggle for media organizations in both countries.

The one factor tying all of these predictions together is the contraction of democratic space and the political rollercoaster the past few years have been. In one of my favorite tracks (“The Matrimony”) by Wale, Jerry Seinfeld talks of life as a rollercoaster and once you’re at the top, all you can do is scream as you rapidly descend. Partly because you’re not ready for it, and partly because there’s no way to adequately prepare for the drop.

I think the end of 2018 is the top of the rollercoaster track. The descent, which we are not ready for, is going to involve a lot of screaming as we hurtle towards Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 U.S. elections.

Within the traditional media space, we can see the speed with which news and journalism have been co-opted by the state in recent years. In the U.S., after two years of covering the new political dispensation, news organizations have shown breathtaking naiveté in how to approach their new reality. From the constant coverage of every new controversial tweet to Jim Acosta’s banishment from the White House Briefing Room, journalism in the U.S. has continually shown its level of maladroitness in covering an administration that is both hostile to its very existence and adept at manipulating it into covering manufactured crises. In the U.K., we have seen news organizations struggle in their coverage of both Brexit and Facebook’s nefarious activities. One only needs to look at the fascinating work by Carole Cadwalladr (and her twitter timeline, @carolecadwalla) to see how much trouble audiences in the U.K. are in. As the BBC, much like The New York Times, insists on presenting fringe racist and fascist ideas as “worth debating,” we see the expansion of fringe right-wing, racist, sexist, fascist echo chambers into organizations once revered as trustworthy, objective, and models for others to emulate. What we have seen is a steady weaponization of what Whitney Phillips calls “both sides-ism” by savvy fringe voices. In this moment of political crises in both countries, organizations have found themselves either scrambling to make sense of the world using approaches completely not suitable for the current reality or becoming too deferential to the state.

This is only going to get worse in 2019. Lies and factual inaccuracies will be presented as legitimate voices from “the other side.” One only need to look at climate change coverage in both countries, or even the rise of ignoble characters like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos (in the U.S.) and Tommy Robinson (in the U.K.). Superfluous nods to “objectivity” will continue to be manipulated by the fringes to make sure they have a voice in legacy media. But perhaps the most disheartening thing will be the fact that the state, in both countries, will continue to use its privileged space in the media ecology to manipulate the narrative construction.

Unless journalists decide to take a stand and rethink the current status quo, 2019 will be darker and gloomier. If you think 2018 was bad, my advice for 2019 is to buckle up, because it’s going to be even bumpier. To audiences, my advice is the maxim caveat emptor. The daily deluge of panic-driven, vacuous, news coverage is about to shift into high gear.

james Wahutu is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and will be an assistant professor at NYU in 2019.

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