Toward a wehrhafte journalism

“I hope that the past five years have taught journalists that their role is to contribute to democracy’s fortification and to defend it when necessary.”

Journalists in the United States have mostly described efforts by Donald Trump and Republicans to fight the results of the 2020 presidential election as what it is: a large-scale, shamelessly anti-democratic disinformation campaign.

Given journalists’ track record over the past five years, that could have gone differently. Instead of calling out anti-democratic behavior, they could have continued presenting the election and its aftermath as a “both sides” issue, as many did prior to the election.

I want to suggest that journalists shouldn’t commit the mistake of falling back into their pre-2016 mode of business-as-usual bothsidesism. Instead, they should base their work on democratic principles and contribute to the fortification of democracy.

Bothsidesism, or what Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere,” is inherently problematic. The general idea is this: Every story has more than one side, and a good journalist’s job is to present those different sides in order to tell a more complex, nuanced story.

But what sounds good in theory can prove challenging and even harmful in practice. Instead of more nuanced reporting, the view from nowhere can lead to the reduction of complexity known as “he said, she said.” In everyday political journalism, this can mean quoting both prominent Democrats and Republicans and calling it a day.

At best, this means that, instead of more voices in the news, fewer get heard. At worst, bothsidesism legitimizes illegitimate standpoints. In the context of climate change coverage, the practice of giving voice to a climate scientist as well as a climate denier has been rightfully called “balance as bias.” With an ever-radicalizing Republican Party — peddling anti-democratic voter-fraud conspiracy theories and entertaining secession fantasies, now with a QAnon supporter in their congressional ranks — presenting “both sides” as equal is not only irresponsible. It’s recklessly dangerous.

We need to rethink journalism — and, more importantly, admit that journalism built around the idea of neutrality and objectivity is inherently vulnerable to disinformation and bad faith arguments. This insight, of course, is hardly new: Stephen J. A. Ward, for example, argued for a radical rethinking of journalism ethics. And in last year’s Nieman Lab predictions, Geneva Overholser called for “death to bothsidesism.”

Indeed, the question of where journalism is heading — or, rather, should be heading — is an old one for journalism scholars. The general question in this context, then, is usually: If not objectivity and neutrality, what should journalism be built around?

Based on Rawls, Habermas, and others, the suggestion is a simple one: Build journalism around democratic values and justice.

A journalism that actually follows ethical guidelines (as opposed to, say, The New York Times’ guidelines for ethical journalism) would not only think about what voices to include but also whether including some of them is unethical. Bad-faith arguments, disinformation, and extreme speech serve no productive democratic purpose. Instead, they’re aimed at polluting the public sphere and corroding trust in the institution that is the news media.

Journalists will have to reconsider their roles, and media organizations will have to rewrite their ethical guidelines in order to put upholding democracy and promoting justice and fairness front and center. Joan Donovan and danah boyd, for example, have convincingly argued that journalists should adopt strategies such as strategic silence and strategic amplification.

This shift is especially imperative now. Donald Trump’s reign is almost over, and journalists seem eager to go back to business as usual, returning to the days when politicians and those in power could to some degree be held accountable, because they respected norms, procedure, professionalism, and public opinion. But it’s likely that those formerly in power will rediscover their opposition talking points and fake outrage (e.g., deep concern about the size of the federal debt). They’ll surface scandals old and new, block any attempts at legislating, mobilize around their supposed disenfranchisement, and present themselves as upholders of democracy. For journalists who try to return to pre-Trump normal, that will mean presenting those dangerous talking points as just another legitimate side to the story.

My hope for 2021 is that journalists resist this urge and instead guide their reporting by democratic principles that shutout anti-democratic behavior. In Germany, we sometimes argue that a democracy needs to be wehrhafte, or well-fortified. I hope that the past five years have taught journalists that their role is to contribute to democracy’s fortification and to defend it when necessary.

Jonas Kaiser is an assistant professor at Suffolk University and a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Journalists in the United States have mostly described efforts by Donald Trump and Republicans to fight the results of the 2020 presidential election as what it is: a large-scale, shamelessly anti-democratic disinformation campaign.

Given journalists’ track record over the past five years, that could have gone differently. Instead of calling out anti-democratic behavior, they could have continued presenting the election and its aftermath as a “both sides” issue, as many did prior to the election.

I want to suggest that journalists shouldn’t commit the mistake of falling back into their pre-2016 mode of business-as-usual bothsidesism. Instead, they should base their work on democratic principles and contribute to the fortification of democracy.

Bothsidesism, or what Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere,” is inherently problematic. The general idea is this: Every story has more than one side, and a good journalist’s job is to present those different sides in order to tell a more complex, nuanced story.

But what sounds good in theory can prove challenging and even harmful in practice. Instead of more nuanced reporting, the view from nowhere can lead to the reduction of complexity known as “he said, she said.” In everyday political journalism, this can mean quoting both prominent Democrats and Republicans and calling it a day.

At best, this means that, instead of more voices in the news, fewer get heard. At worst, bothsidesism legitimizes illegitimate standpoints. In the context of climate change coverage, the practice of giving voice to a climate scientist as well as a climate denier has been rightfully called “balance as bias.” With an ever-radicalizing Republican Party — peddling anti-democratic voter-fraud conspiracy theories and entertaining secession fantasies, now with a QAnon supporter in their congressional ranks — presenting “both sides” as equal is not only irresponsible. It’s recklessly dangerous.

We need to rethink journalism — and, more importantly, admit that journalism built around the idea of neutrality and objectivity is inherently vulnerable to disinformation and bad faith arguments. This insight, of course, is hardly new: Stephen J. A. Ward, for example, argued for a radical rethinking of journalism ethics. And in last year’s Nieman Lab predictions, Geneva Overholser called for “death to bothsidesism.”

Indeed, the question of where journalism is heading — or, rather, should be heading — is an old one for journalism scholars. The general question in this context, then, is usually: If not objectivity and neutrality, what should journalism be built around?

Based on Rawls, Habermas, and others, the suggestion is a simple one: Build journalism around democratic values and justice.

A journalism that actually follows ethical guidelines (as opposed to, say, The New York Times’ guidelines for ethical journalism) would not only think about what voices to include but also whether including some of them is unethical. Bad-faith arguments, disinformation, and extreme speech serve no productive democratic purpose. Instead, they’re aimed at polluting the public sphere and corroding trust in the institution that is the news media.

Journalists will have to reconsider their roles, and media organizations will have to rewrite their ethical guidelines in order to put upholding democracy and promoting justice and fairness front and center. Joan Donovan and danah boyd, for example, have convincingly argued that journalists should adopt strategies such as strategic silence and strategic amplification.

This shift is especially imperative now. Donald Trump’s reign is almost over, and journalists seem eager to go back to business as usual, returning to the days when politicians and those in power could to some degree be held accountable, because they respected norms, procedure, professionalism, and public opinion. But it’s likely that those formerly in power will rediscover their opposition talking points and fake outrage (e.g., deep concern about the size of the federal debt). They’ll surface scandals old and new, block any attempts at legislating, mobilize around their supposed disenfranchisement, and present themselves as upholders of democracy. For journalists who try to return to pre-Trump normal, that will mean presenting those dangerous talking points as just another legitimate side to the story.

My hope for 2021 is that journalists resist this urge and instead guide their reporting by democratic principles that shutout anti-democratic behavior. In Germany, we sometimes argue that a democracy needs to be wehrhafte, or well-fortified. I hope that the past five years have taught journalists that their role is to contribute to democracy’s fortification and to defend it when necessary.

Jonas Kaiser is an assistant professor at Suffolk University and a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

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

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

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

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

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

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

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

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

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

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

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

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

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

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

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

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

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

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

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

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Cory Haik   Be essential

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

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

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

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

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

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

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

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

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

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

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

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

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

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

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

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

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

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

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

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

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

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

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

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

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

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

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

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

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

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

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

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

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

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

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

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

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

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

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

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

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

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

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

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

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

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

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

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