Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

“Now that the election is over, democracy is no longer on the ballot — but it is still at stake.”

The United States is a fractured democracy. In 2021, some journalism will exacerbate political schisms in destructive ways, while other journalism will play critical roles in helping to re-knit the civic fabric.

Why? Journalists face key challenges related to trust and legitimacy in 2021. My prediction is that we will see sizable (and democratically consequential) variance in how news outlets deal with the competing pressures they face when interpreting the behaviors of our country’s elected officials, organized interests, and citizens.

Journalists face twin pressures: the continuously evolving natures of both how news organizations determine what is legitimate/verifiably true and how they build and keep trust with their audience. Notably, many journalists and news outlets chose to cover the election and its aftermath through the democracy-worthy lens proposed by the Election Coverage and Democracy Network — highlighting the processes and normalcy of electoral democracy, even as the results were baselessly disputed by the president and many of his supporters both in and out of government.

Some news outlets will continue this style of reporting: helping citizens understand some of the more basic machinations of government, when explicit and baseless norm and rule violations occur, and what the verifiable truth is — even when it may require unbalanced, asymmetric reporting.

By doing this, journalists help civic-minded citizens — especially those who are willing to admit what they do not know. These are the people, according to recent research Jianing Li and I published, that react to a fact-check by updating their attitudes to reflect the verifiable truth. But there is a dark side to when this kind of reporting is successful. That is because it can lead to audience beliefs that the news outlets providing contextual, accurate coverage are biased.

Fears of being branded biased, relying upon old patterns of access-oriented approaches to coverage, and rushing to endorse false, but comfortable, claims of bothsidesism will push some news organizations to engage in false equivalence. They will uncritically highlight and amplify unfounded claims made by partisan elites and seek out the most extreme voices for comment. These behaviors are likely to amplify identity over evidence, increase perceptions of division and media bias, and affect news media agendas more generally.

Democracies depend upon having enough information to make reasoned choices and give penalties for lying. Many pockets and corners of journalism showed laudable efforts to provide that information over the past years. But with a new administration taking over in January, and indeed, as Ben Toff already predicted in this series, 2021 will mark a “return to normalcy.” How news outlets define normal will depend, in part, on how they navigate the competing pressures to report the verifiable truth in context and earn their audience’s trust. Now that the election is over, democracy is no longer on the ballot — but it is still at stake.

Michael W. Wagner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin.

The United States is a fractured democracy. In 2021, some journalism will exacerbate political schisms in destructive ways, while other journalism will play critical roles in helping to re-knit the civic fabric.

Why? Journalists face key challenges related to trust and legitimacy in 2021. My prediction is that we will see sizable (and democratically consequential) variance in how news outlets deal with the competing pressures they face when interpreting the behaviors of our country’s elected officials, organized interests, and citizens.

Journalists face twin pressures: the continuously evolving natures of both how news organizations determine what is legitimate/verifiably true and how they build and keep trust with their audience. Notably, many journalists and news outlets chose to cover the election and its aftermath through the democracy-worthy lens proposed by the Election Coverage and Democracy Network — highlighting the processes and normalcy of electoral democracy, even as the results were baselessly disputed by the president and many of his supporters both in and out of government.

Some news outlets will continue this style of reporting: helping citizens understand some of the more basic machinations of government, when explicit and baseless norm and rule violations occur, and what the verifiable truth is — even when it may require unbalanced, asymmetric reporting.

By doing this, journalists help civic-minded citizens — especially those who are willing to admit what they do not know. These are the people, according to recent research Jianing Li and I published, that react to a fact-check by updating their attitudes to reflect the verifiable truth. But there is a dark side to when this kind of reporting is successful. That is because it can lead to audience beliefs that the news outlets providing contextual, accurate coverage are biased.

Fears of being branded biased, relying upon old patterns of access-oriented approaches to coverage, and rushing to endorse false, but comfortable, claims of bothsidesism will push some news organizations to engage in false equivalence. They will uncritically highlight and amplify unfounded claims made by partisan elites and seek out the most extreme voices for comment. These behaviors are likely to amplify identity over evidence, increase perceptions of division and media bias, and affect news media agendas more generally.

Democracies depend upon having enough information to make reasoned choices and give penalties for lying. Many pockets and corners of journalism showed laudable efforts to provide that information over the past years. But with a new administration taking over in January, and indeed, as Ben Toff already predicted in this series, 2021 will mark a “return to normalcy.” How news outlets define normal will depend, in part, on how they navigate the competing pressures to report the verifiable truth in context and earn their audience’s trust. Now that the election is over, democracy is no longer on the ballot — but it is still at stake.

Michael W. Wagner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin.

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Cory Haik   Be essential

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat