Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

“There’s no going back to a model of journalism that leans into bothsidesism to secure loyalties across the partisan spectrum.”

Professional journalism faces a legitimacy crisis. The Trump years brought one set of problems to the foreground; the years ahead will bring others more clearly into view.

The model of professional journalism that is most familiar in the United States is not timeless. It first arose under particular conditions in the early 20th century. That’s when university programs in journalism first opened their doors and journalists started crafting professional codes. In this vision, journalists were supposed to acquire the expertise to decide what counts as news and how to report it. Their professional discretion was purported to be the key to resisting pressures from political leaders, business interests, and audiences.

This model contrasted sharply with the effusively partisan style of news that had pervaded the U.S. through most of the 19th century. Much of that era’s press fed off partisan loyalties. It relied on a shared political identity with its audience for appeal and perceived credibility, as Richard Kaplan argues in his careful and detailed portrait of the rise of journalistic objectivity and professionalism. Kaplan showed that one major factor prompting journalism’s professional transformation was a shift in American political culture. In the midst of Progressive Era reforms and Populist insurgency, party machines lost power and the intensity of partisan loyalties diminished.

While professionalism promised them greater autonomy, journalists never achieved a broad mandate to act as a critical check on popular opinions, to exercise their own political judgment, or to seriously engage socially marginalized viewpoints. Instead, Kaplan argues, the ideal of objectivity led journalists to link “their fortunes to the elite” for a “semblance of power and prestige.” Journalists largely deferred to government officials and party elites to set boundaries around what Daniel Hallin calls the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” This professional model also called on journalists to venture cautiously when hitting upon issues of elite controversy. They relied heavily on the technique of presenting “both sides” of an issue while withholding their own obvious pronouncements.

The influence of this model of professional journalism has been declining for decades. Its problems and faults have been numerous: from the narrow perspective and social exclusivity of a profession long dominated by white men to the contradictions of a technocratic approach to making news decisions unavoidably touching upon contested values.

But even with all its weaknesses, we haven’t seen an alternative model emerge that can speak across partisan and social divides. To the extent that news outlets have achieved such cross-partisan and popular legitimacy, they’re still riding off the fumes of professionalism.

This situation poses delicate challenges. During the Trump years, progressive news workers, readers, and viewers rightfully put much more pressure on news outlets to ditch the timidity of previous professional norms — calling on outlets to boldly label politicians’ lies and racist fearmongering and assert a voice in defense of democratic ideals. There’s no going back to a model of journalism that leans into bothsidesism to secure loyalties across the partisan spectrum. But in a state of dizzying polarization, journalism has little foothold on any other source of cultural authority that spans partisan and social divides.

Many of us accept that “neutrally reported” facts alone are not sufficient to counteract the threats of anti-democratic movements and demagogues trading in propaganda and manipulation. But neither is a press that speaks with moral clarity and conviction about these dangers — unless it enjoys a broad and popular perception of legitimacy.

Creating institutions and platforms capable of supporting democracy’s communicative needs under such conditions is the struggle that lies ahead.

Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College.

Professional journalism faces a legitimacy crisis. The Trump years brought one set of problems to the foreground; the years ahead will bring others more clearly into view.

The model of professional journalism that is most familiar in the United States is not timeless. It first arose under particular conditions in the early 20th century. That’s when university programs in journalism first opened their doors and journalists started crafting professional codes. In this vision, journalists were supposed to acquire the expertise to decide what counts as news and how to report it. Their professional discretion was purported to be the key to resisting pressures from political leaders, business interests, and audiences.

This model contrasted sharply with the effusively partisan style of news that had pervaded the U.S. through most of the 19th century. Much of that era’s press fed off partisan loyalties. It relied on a shared political identity with its audience for appeal and perceived credibility, as Richard Kaplan argues in his careful and detailed portrait of the rise of journalistic objectivity and professionalism. Kaplan showed that one major factor prompting journalism’s professional transformation was a shift in American political culture. In the midst of Progressive Era reforms and Populist insurgency, party machines lost power and the intensity of partisan loyalties diminished.

While professionalism promised them greater autonomy, journalists never achieved a broad mandate to act as a critical check on popular opinions, to exercise their own political judgment, or to seriously engage socially marginalized viewpoints. Instead, Kaplan argues, the ideal of objectivity led journalists to link “their fortunes to the elite” for a “semblance of power and prestige.” Journalists largely deferred to government officials and party elites to set boundaries around what Daniel Hallin calls the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” This professional model also called on journalists to venture cautiously when hitting upon issues of elite controversy. They relied heavily on the technique of presenting “both sides” of an issue while withholding their own obvious pronouncements.

The influence of this model of professional journalism has been declining for decades. Its problems and faults have been numerous: from the narrow perspective and social exclusivity of a profession long dominated by white men to the contradictions of a technocratic approach to making news decisions unavoidably touching upon contested values.

But even with all its weaknesses, we haven’t seen an alternative model emerge that can speak across partisan and social divides. To the extent that news outlets have achieved such cross-partisan and popular legitimacy, they’re still riding off the fumes of professionalism.

This situation poses delicate challenges. During the Trump years, progressive news workers, readers, and viewers rightfully put much more pressure on news outlets to ditch the timidity of previous professional norms — calling on outlets to boldly label politicians’ lies and racist fearmongering and assert a voice in defense of democratic ideals. There’s no going back to a model of journalism that leans into bothsidesism to secure loyalties across the partisan spectrum. But in a state of dizzying polarization, journalism has little foothold on any other source of cultural authority that spans partisan and social divides.

Many of us accept that “neutrally reported” facts alone are not sufficient to counteract the threats of anti-democratic movements and demagogues trading in propaganda and manipulation. But neither is a press that speaks with moral clarity and conviction about these dangers — unless it enjoys a broad and popular perception of legitimacy.

Creating institutions and platforms capable of supporting democracy’s communicative needs under such conditions is the struggle that lies ahead.

Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College.

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