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March 31, 2020, 2:45 p.m.
LINK: www.cjr.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   March 31, 2020

Back in December, A.J. Bauer, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, predicted for Nieman Lab that conservative journalism would either face “a reckoning or a reformation” depending on the 2020 election outcome, based on then-unpublished research.

Today, the Tow Center published that study that aims to shed light on the “values and practices of online journalists on the right.”

Between October 2018 and May 2019, Anthony Nadler, Bauer, and Magda Konieczna from the Tow Center interviewed 22 reporters and editors from 14 conservative news organizations as “a first attempt at understanding how journalists working at these partisan or ideologically oriented online outlets narrate their work, their values, and their role within the broader U.S. news system.”

The researchers found that conservative newsworkers subscribe to some, but not all, traditional norms of American mainstream journalism:

Most of our interviewees espouse a set of journalistic ideals shared by traditional nonpartisan journalists. Among these ideals are accuracy, fairly representing differing perspectives, and setting a measured tone in debate.

There is no consensus on the roles of objectivity or balance as journalistic ideals. Some conservative news organizations subscribe to conventional notions of fairness and balance, and see impartial reporting as a worthwhile ideal. Others advocate for radical subjectivity, and contend that all reporters (conservative or otherwise) ought to be transparent about their political and other biases—trusting in the audience to assess the veracity of news on the basis of “authenticity.”

“According to our analysis, conservative journalism is thus best characterized not by complete autonomy of values or practices, but by its unique proximity (both conceptual and geographic) to both mainstream political journalism and the modern conservative movement,” the report says.

Other findings:

  • The feeling that the mainstream media is unfair to conservative journalism was “a unifying belief among many of our interviewees. They believe conservative journalists and organizations are unfairly held to different standards and judged by a mistaken association with fringe elements of the conservative news sphere.”
  • Many conservative journalists touted their own publication’s commitment to fairness and accuracy — but they considered that commitment an outlier among their peers: “Many participants said they see few other conservative outlets as high-quality news sources.”
  • Most interviewees said they wanted conservative media to encourage “vigorous debate among diverging conservative opinions,” but many felt it fell short by marginalizing #NeverTrump conservatives.
  • There was no consensus among conservative journalists on how to handle misinformation. They agreed it was a problem, but differed on how severe it was among right-wing audiences.

The report looks into how conservative media has evolved into what it is today:

The renewed influence of partisan media can be traced back to the late 1980s, when the Federal Communication Commission’s revocation of the Fairness Doctrine, combined with industry efforts to save AM radio, yielded a commercially viable right-wing talk radio. The talk radio business model, combined with stylistic elements derived from tabloid newspapers, eventually influenced the emergence of partisan cable news.

Still, it has been in the arena of online news — and digital adaptation by the larger news system — where the expansion of partisan news has accelerated most rapidly. This expansion has coincided with debates within many digital newsrooms over whether the dominant values of mid-20th-century journalism should be preserved, or whether journalists must forge new relationships with readers and replace familiar notions of objectivity and balance.

Efrat Nechushtai argues that the United States is currently witnessing a transformation of its media system, one in which “unevenness and fragmentation are replacing the Liberal consensus on professional ethos, norms, and practices.”

Yet very little research to date has explicitly addressed questions of partisan journalism. While work on “innovation in journalism” and “the future of news” has focused on digital outlets like BuzzFeed or the now-defunct Gawker, which have expressed support for progressive social values, the flourishing sphere of right-leaning online journalism has been almost entirely ignored.

Read the full report here.

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