When journalism’s relevance is also on the ballot

Prof Seth C. Lewis

Professor and Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.

Dr Matt Carlson

Associate professor in the Hubbard School for Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

He is author of Journalistic Authority.

Prof Sue Robinson

Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Her most recent book is Networked News, Racial Divides: How power and privilege shape public discourse in progressive communities.

Section 4: News and journalism

The closing of the polls on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, marked the opening of a campaign waged by Donald Trump and his allies to discredit the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots that were sure to erode—and eventually overtake—Trump’s lead in in-person voting in several key states. By Thursday night, when Trump’s lead was nearly permanently gone, claims of election fraud reached a fever pitch among the primetime news hosts on the right-leaning Fox News Channel. Sean Hannity, on his eponymous program Hannity, launched a relentless diatribe delegitimizing the vote counting in deeply Democratic Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania. At one point, he interviewed Newt Gingrich, a Fox News contributor and former Republican congressperson who had served as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 1990s. Gingrich did not mince words in describing the ongoing ballot counting: “No one should have any doubt, you are watching an effort to steal the presidency of the United States.” Gingrich added, “This is a genuine deep crisis of our survival,” and he called for the arrest of ballot counters and the dismissal of legitimately cast votes. Even with all the heated allegations of unfounded wrongdoing, Gingrich’s statements were frighteningly anti-democratic. But this is not some marginal figure appearing on some marginal media channel on the fringes of society. Instead, here was the former Speaker of the House appearing on a major news outlet watched by millions of people to discredit a democratic election and call for the arrest of government officials in charge of tallying ballots.

What does this rant, and its amplification by a news channel, tell us about journalism in 2020? We believe it signals how much our media culture has changed. That is, even if traditional journalistic practices remain more-or-less intact, the overall media environment has changed radically in recent times. This is true of the supply of media content, particularly through the right-wing media machine of Fox News, talk radio, and digital news sites like Breitbart and the Daily Wire, but also in the distribution of information generally through social media platforms that operate wholly outside traditional news channels—as in the case of Facebook groups promoting QAnon and anti-vaxxer conspiracies. What is at stake, as we argue in a forthcoming book, Redefining Journalistic Relevance: The Struggle to Claim What’s True, is the very relevance of journalism in our contemporary media culture.

The relevance of journalism—in its mainstream, neutral, evidenced-based form—is in danger in no small part because identity politics have weaponized what news we watch. Historically, our theories of media—especially around media consumption—have been based on characteristics of information. Give people good, relevant, accurate information about public affairs, this perspective assumes, and a vibrant democracy shall follow.

With ideological media machines in overdrive, however, journalism and political communication scholars have come to realize that the world is no longer defined by information, but by identities. Trump supporters see in their candidate their own unspoken—and, perhaps for many, unacknowledged—values such as fear that immigrants will steal their livelihoods. Central to this is a decades-long cultivation of a belief that mainstream news outlets spout liberal agendas littered with “fake news,” a term that Trump has so effectively deployed to capture many people’s pre-existing frustrations with journalists and to undermine any future confidence in the press. Trump supporters listen when he tells them to ignore journalists—the “the enemy of the people,” he calls them—and get their information only from him or his sanctioned sources such as Fox News.

Meanwhile, for those on the left, investment in mainstream journalism organizations became symbolic of their commitment to democracy, which they conflated with the Democratic candidate. For the first time in decades, the needle on media trust markedly ticked upward—but only for those leaning left. Recent surveys show that, in America today, your media choices are driven primarily by your ideology. And even while fears about online filter bubbles are mostly overblown, research shows how people overall inhabit increasingly divergent information worlds: you watch Fox News or you watch MSNBC, you listen to friends and family who think the same way you do and you dismiss everything else as fake news. And doing so makes us feel secure in our righteousness, secure in our sense of self. As Daniel Kreiss wrote in describing Tea Party members, “Fox News was less about ‘information’ than ‘family’”—reinforcing the power of identity for understanding contemporary media and politics.

Even once the dust settles on Election 2020, this dynamic of “identity over information” will endure as polarization deepens. Journalists in recent years have tried to figure out how to better reach communities that seem beyond their grasp, from people of color to rural whites. But journalists will never rebuild trust among people who feel marginalized by news by simply offering more of the same—more helpings of “just good, accurate news.” Doubling down on high-quality information is not without merit, but it misses the essence of the challenge ahead: How does one do journalism in a way that appeals to people’s core identities, particularly as those identities fracture and diverge and confound traditional universals?

In hindsight, this election may be seen as a pivotal test of mainstream journalism’s relevance and the difficulty of doing news that matters in the emergent media culture.