Changing Journalism Requires Systemic Changes; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 3

I previously wrote about some of the unique challenges the press faces in covering Trump. But I never really touched on the larger structural features in the press that prevent coverage that best serves the public. I want to write about that in this post. Specifically, I want to address criticism of press coverage that I see regularly. What’s interesting, in my view, is that I agree with their criticisms, but my sense is that they don’t seem to understand the obstacles that prevent the coverage they seek. For example, the solution isn’t simply editors and journalists simply choosing a different approach. In my opinion, the problem is systemic and structural; individual journalists are more like cogs in a machine than masters operating the machine. To put it more simply, the work of journalists occur with a larger system, which includes a set of incentives and disincentives that impact the nature of their work. The totality of these incentives and disincentives create a kind of current or stream, pushing journalists and the news outlets they work in, shaping their culture, and the standards, norms, values and approach to journalism is a product of this influence. This includes the current coverage of politicians. In my view, when criticizing press coverage one should have an understanding of these larger forces. Would these forces support or oppose the type of critics prefer? That, in my view, is the key question. If the preferred approach would be going against the current–that is, negative consequences would occur to the outlet and the people that run it–then expecting journalists to adopt this different approach is unrealistic. No matter how much one complains, the change won’t occur–even if the merits show the alternate approach is superior. If the current practice is awful, my sense is that one must change the systemic forces–the incentives and disincentives of their work–if one wants journalists to change their coverage. Having said that, this seems like a long process, not something that would occur quickly. Professional journalists have a set way of doing things. They’ve been trained in this way. To expect them to dramatically change this–not just concrete actions, but also their mindset–seems unrealistic. For one thing, I suspect many will resist this simply because change is uncomfortable, and the more dramatic the change, the greater the discomfort and the greater the resistance. The critics remind me of critics of government. The criticism can be valid. Their suggestions for a better way may actually be a better way that the status quo. But knowing both of these things is the easy part. The hard part is implementing the change. My sense is that these critics assume that if people simply understand a) the deficiencies in the status quo and b) a superior alternative, this is all that’s needed to change the situation. But in my experience, awareness and knowledge are not the main issue. The bigger issue involves the structure and system of the work. Will this system be amenable and supportive, or hostile or indifferent, to these changes? My sense is that change depends on achieving the former. Now, while I said that realization and understanding are not critical. Maybe if the journalists became more aware of the system forces that influence their work–and they became more aware of the way this influenced not only their specific output, but the culture and norms of their profession–maybe could spur some changes from individuals. Part of the problem might stem from the fact that individuals operating withing a system are oblivious to these systemic forces. And maybe awareness could empower them to change.

One thought on “Changing Journalism Requires Systemic Changes; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 3

  1. This post by Jay Rosen is sample announcement that a news outlet would make, informing the public about a change in the way they’re going to cover Trump. This is the closest I’ve seen to the type of thing I’ve been wanting from the press.

    Here is an excerpt:

    We know this sounds extreme. We wish it were not happening. We understand the risk we take by putting it so starkly: The presidency of Donald Trump is an active threat to American democracy. What do we mean by an active threat? Using the powers he won by election, the incumbent is trying to destroy public confidence in the results of the next election.

    For example: “A Wall Street Journal review of Mr. Trump’s tweets dating back to 2012 found more than 110 instances of the president claiming widespread illegal voting, asserting an election or primary was rigged, or that voting by mail would allow for rampant fraud. More than half of those tweets were from this year, with the most of them concerning mail balloting.”

    Rosen goes on to list several more examples. He also explains different ways they will be covering Trump. Again, this is not something the press is doing–but something Rosen would like to see them do. I feel the same.

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