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.

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