20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

Know the context your journalism is operating within

“Media coverage contributes to an ecosystem that harms people and democracies, and we can’t ignore that context any longer.”

It’s difficult to be optimistic about journalism in 2020, for exactly the reasons you think: media consolidation, layoffs, general financial bleakness, rampant mistrust among a hopelessly divided public, all combined with the proliferation of mis- and disinformation in a presidential election year with a man on the ballot who wants to undermine the press. Ugh.

However, as a professor, I work with the journalists of the future, so I want to find a kernel of hope — for them and for our democracy. As has been true for many years now, the best thing journalists can do is look around them and adapt instead of fighting for the status quo. And in this environment, one way to adapt is to ensure journalism is context-dependent — that part of its fundamental role is to respond to the media landscape instead of just operating in it.

Understanding that journalism is more a piece of the puzzle for audiences, rather than the dominant narrative, and that journalists’ work must be more thoughtful, relevant, and transparent will move us toward new values. I already see this reflected in my students. They have a more inherent understanding of how to function online, they fundamentally seem to care more about the effect they have on their audience, and they advocate for a better way forward. All of these are signals of the context dependence that journalism needs.

I’m not breaking news to anyone by saying that journalism’s gatekeeping role has been greatly diminished. As Tom Rosenstiel recently put it, journalists are now “annotators” of what the public knows, rather than the agenda setters. Similarly, this recent report from API advocates that journalists redefine their jobs in a landscape full of misinformation. They must take on new responsibilities and consider how their work might be misused by bad actors with free rein online to act both against people and the public good.

These ideas extend offline as well. Just as research guided API’s recommendations, it’s also guiding some news organizations to reconsider how they cover mass shootings and other high-profile tragedies. And just as operating in today’s online environment requires a rethinking of journalism’s role and practices, so does adjusting for these events. Is a shooter’s name important for journalists to know? Yes. Is it important for a name and face to be blasted to everyone from TV screens to phone lock screens? No — in fact, it’s harmful. Context matters.

In all honesty, I’m dreading 2020. I think election coverage and media manipulation are going to be worse than in 2016, not better. But there are some news organizations starting to do better on issues like mass shooting coverage, and my hope is that ideas for how journalists can be more effective annotators in the current media landscape will similarly continue to gain traction. Media coverage contributes to an ecosystem that harms people and democracies, and we can’t ignore that context any longer.

Laura Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It’s difficult to be optimistic about journalism in 2020, for exactly the reasons you think: media consolidation, layoffs, general financial bleakness, rampant mistrust among a hopelessly divided public, all combined with the proliferation of mis- and disinformation in a presidential election year with a man on the ballot who wants to undermine the press. Ugh.

However, as a professor, I work with the journalists of the future, so I want to find a kernel of hope — for them and for our democracy. As has been true for many years now, the best thing journalists can do is look around them and adapt instead of fighting for the status quo. And in this environment, one way to adapt is to ensure journalism is context-dependent — that part of its fundamental role is to respond to the media landscape instead of just operating in it.

Understanding that journalism is more a piece of the puzzle for audiences, rather than the dominant narrative, and that journalists’ work must be more thoughtful, relevant, and transparent will move us toward new values. I already see this reflected in my students. They have a more inherent understanding of how to function online, they fundamentally seem to care more about the effect they have on their audience, and they advocate for a better way forward. All of these are signals of the context dependence that journalism needs.

I’m not breaking news to anyone by saying that journalism’s gatekeeping role has been greatly diminished. As Tom Rosenstiel recently put it, journalists are now “annotators” of what the public knows, rather than the agenda setters. Similarly, this recent report from API advocates that journalists redefine their jobs in a landscape full of misinformation. They must take on new responsibilities and consider how their work might be misused by bad actors with free rein online to act both against people and the public good.

These ideas extend offline as well. Just as research guided API’s recommendations, it’s also guiding some news organizations to reconsider how they cover mass shootings and other high-profile tragedies. And just as operating in today’s online environment requires a rethinking of journalism’s role and practices, so does adjusting for these events. Is a shooter’s name important for journalists to know? Yes. Is it important for a name and face to be blasted to everyone from TV screens to phone lock screens? No — in fact, it’s harmful. Context matters.

In all honesty, I’m dreading 2020. I think election coverage and media manipulation are going to be worse than in 2016, not better. But there are some news organizations starting to do better on issues like mass shooting coverage, and my hope is that ideas for how journalists can be more effective annotators in the current media landscape will similarly continue to gain traction. Media coverage contributes to an ecosystem that harms people and democracies, and we can’t ignore that context any longer.

Laura Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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