Engagement journalism will have to confront a tougher reality

“Until our engagement journalism tactics confront the reality of discursive silos in which you believe this happened, I believe that happened, and we never end up with a shared set of facts…they will fail.”

I have a good prediction and a bad prediction for 2023. The first will make you feel all warm and fuzzy and yay democracy and all. But the second will probably erase those feelings and make you burrow back into that smelly blanket you haven’t washed since before Covid. Are we allowed to make predictions that we hope will fail?

First, as you may have heard, people don’t trust the news media. When I was a reporter, I had a T-shirt that said “Trust me. I’m a reporter.” That was in the 90s and early 2000s when we could wear such things cheekily, confident that our newspaper was making its shareholders a comfy 20% profit margin. Remember those days? Yeah. Those were fine days. Unless you identified as an immigrant or African American or disabled person or on the far right or a whole lot of other identities, and if you did, they really weren’t fine days for you, informationally, because your communities tended to be portrayed inaccurately or one-dimensionally or something other than how you saw your communities. Nonetheless, there is no getting around that trust has declined to 34% at last recording, and everyone is wringing their hands. What to do?!!

Good news! The journalism profession in the United States has figured it out! Rethink the journalist-audience relationship. Embrace “engagement” and “solutions journalism” and maybe, if they are really on the ball, “solidarity journalism.” As I write in my forthcoming book How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care, it is important to know — and if you are reading Nieman Lab, chances are you do — that many people have committed much time and money to an industry transformation away from traditional top-down, official-dominant, binary he-said-she-said reporting of the news.

Instead, a series of journalism-adjacent programs, organizations, foundations, think tanks and others have embarked on a massive, cohesive reporter retraining throughout the United States toward rethinking what journalism is and who it is for. These trainings began about 15 years ago, and my first prediction is that by the end of 2023, the majority of newsrooms in the country will have tried and (maybe, hopefully) adopted at least some part of these new strategies. These strategies run from the very easy (be transparent and explicit about the reporting process and ethical decision making with every story) to the very difficult (invite community members to collaborate in actual content production). For some examples of these various engagement projects aimed at building trust, check out Democracy SOS or Dimensions of Difference or The Trust Project.

And now for the bummer part: No one knows if it will work, and it is my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad second prediction that we will not know the answer by the end of 2023. And, if I may scrape at the secret buried deep in the very black bottom of my gut, the truth: This movement probably will not work in the end. The reason for this has to do with the parallel information worlds people in the United States have entered, closing the door on the way in and refusing to look at those “other” worlds of news and facts and dialogue. We believe these grand narratives that the press has done us wrong, we have plenty of evidence of those wrongs, and we are not interested in their present-day mea culpa. I and my co-authors Matt Carlson and Seth C. Lewis document some of this phenomenon in our 2021 News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture. Until our engagement journalism tactics confront this reality of discursive silos in which you believe this happened, I believe that happened, and we never end up with a shared set of facts, well…they will fail.

But wait! Before you throw your iPhone 14 Plus with its Mastodon or Post apps or whatever you are settling on, I do think there is a way around this. We can change! You and me! We can re-open our information worlds and look around outside. We can convince all the people in our networks to do that as well! I do think there are some very promising techniques being developed toward this end. Here I am thinking about Amanda Ripley’s Good Conflict: Why we get trapped and how we get out and Mónica Guzmán’s I Never Thought of It That Way: How to have fearlessly curious conversations in dangerously divided times. But it’s gonna take collective conversation therapy. And we gotta be willing to finally shed Twitter (what? I know. I haven’t left yet either…), throw Smelly Covid blankie aside, and head toward the kitchen table instead.

Sue Robinson is the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I have a good prediction and a bad prediction for 2023. The first will make you feel all warm and fuzzy and yay democracy and all. But the second will probably erase those feelings and make you burrow back into that smelly blanket you haven’t washed since before Covid. Are we allowed to make predictions that we hope will fail?

First, as you may have heard, people don’t trust the news media. When I was a reporter, I had a T-shirt that said “Trust me. I’m a reporter.” That was in the 90s and early 2000s when we could wear such things cheekily, confident that our newspaper was making its shareholders a comfy 20% profit margin. Remember those days? Yeah. Those were fine days. Unless you identified as an immigrant or African American or disabled person or on the far right or a whole lot of other identities, and if you did, they really weren’t fine days for you, informationally, because your communities tended to be portrayed inaccurately or one-dimensionally or something other than how you saw your communities. Nonetheless, there is no getting around that trust has declined to 34% at last recording, and everyone is wringing their hands. What to do?!!

Good news! The journalism profession in the United States has figured it out! Rethink the journalist-audience relationship. Embrace “engagement” and “solutions journalism” and maybe, if they are really on the ball, “solidarity journalism.” As I write in my forthcoming book How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care, it is important to know — and if you are reading Nieman Lab, chances are you do — that many people have committed much time and money to an industry transformation away from traditional top-down, official-dominant, binary he-said-she-said reporting of the news.

Instead, a series of journalism-adjacent programs, organizations, foundations, think tanks and others have embarked on a massive, cohesive reporter retraining throughout the United States toward rethinking what journalism is and who it is for. These trainings began about 15 years ago, and my first prediction is that by the end of 2023, the majority of newsrooms in the country will have tried and (maybe, hopefully) adopted at least some part of these new strategies. These strategies run from the very easy (be transparent and explicit about the reporting process and ethical decision making with every story) to the very difficult (invite community members to collaborate in actual content production). For some examples of these various engagement projects aimed at building trust, check out Democracy SOS or Dimensions of Difference or The Trust Project.

And now for the bummer part: No one knows if it will work, and it is my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad second prediction that we will not know the answer by the end of 2023. And, if I may scrape at the secret buried deep in the very black bottom of my gut, the truth: This movement probably will not work in the end. The reason for this has to do with the parallel information worlds people in the United States have entered, closing the door on the way in and refusing to look at those “other” worlds of news and facts and dialogue. We believe these grand narratives that the press has done us wrong, we have plenty of evidence of those wrongs, and we are not interested in their present-day mea culpa. I and my co-authors Matt Carlson and Seth C. Lewis document some of this phenomenon in our 2021 News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture. Until our engagement journalism tactics confront this reality of discursive silos in which you believe this happened, I believe that happened, and we never end up with a shared set of facts, well…they will fail.

But wait! Before you throw your iPhone 14 Plus with its Mastodon or Post apps or whatever you are settling on, I do think there is a way around this. We can change! You and me! We can re-open our information worlds and look around outside. We can convince all the people in our networks to do that as well! I do think there are some very promising techniques being developed toward this end. Here I am thinking about Amanda Ripley’s Good Conflict: Why we get trapped and how we get out and Mónica Guzmán’s I Never Thought of It That Way: How to have fearlessly curious conversations in dangerously divided times. But it’s gonna take collective conversation therapy. And we gotta be willing to finally shed Twitter (what? I know. I haven’t left yet either…), throw Smelly Covid blankie aside, and head toward the kitchen table instead.

Sue Robinson is the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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