The Conversation: Experts' roundtable: The future of journalism in Trump's America

Elon Communications Professor Glenn Scott weighs in for this article that explores how journalism can adapt during a time when journalists are facing challenges. 

By Gerry Lanosga, Indiana University, Bloomington ; Damian Radcliffe, University of Oregon; Frank Waddell, University of Florida; Glenn Scott, Elon University, and Jennifer Glover Konfrst, Drake University

During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump wasn’t shy about his hostility toward journalists. His unexpected victory proved his doubters – which included many in the media – wrong.

We’ve gathered a group of media experts to explore the challenges facing journalists and the public under a Trump administration: restoring trust, sifting through propaganda, resisting being manipulated, reviving local news outlets and parsing fake news.

Resisting a master media manipulator

Gerry Lanosga, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Indiana University

When historians look back on Donald Trump’s unexpected political rise, his mastery of media manipulation will undoubtedly be one of the key factors they consider.

During a campaign that made journalists a constant target of his anti-establishment rhetoric, Trump was also able to capture a disproportionate share of media attention by making outrageous, unpredictable statements.

Remarkable as it was, this was not entirely uncharted territory. Trump is hardly the first politician to attack the press (Thomas Jefferson once claimed newspapers “raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb”). And his tactic of cutting out the media middleman by using direct-to-audience messaging through Twitter? That, too, has precursors, from FDR’s fireside chats to Harry Truman’s whistle-stop tour, an echo of similar 19th-century campaigns.

More broadly, presidents have always tried to influence the news media for political ends. “News management” is a relatively recent term, but the idea goes back at least as far as Andrew Jackson, whose publicity machine churned out news releases and choreographed press events.

Trump’s unique contribution to all this is his showman’s instinct for creating news diversions that tend to draw attention away from his opponents or from more damaging stories. For example, Politico’s Jack Shafer pointed out that the media uproar from Trump’s attack on the cast of “Hamilton” booted the Trump University lawsuit settlement right out of the news cycle.

Journalists will need vigilance and discipline to resist such manipulation. Those things haven’t always been hallmarks of the White House press corps, which is often criticized as timid, pack-oriented and overly chummy with official Washington.

Such criticisms are reflected in declining public trust in news media. At the same time, recent surveys have shown that Americans place high value on fact-checking and investigative reporting.

But providing those things is challenging given today’s reactionary news environment and the realities of the shrinking ranks of journalists covering the federal government.

Trump’s White House is sure to provide plenty of fascination for reporters, making it too easy for them to devote their time to his pronouncements or latest Twitter dust-up. Meanwhile, the shiny object at the top may distract from important news happening in lower precincts, namely the dozens of executive branch agencies that are key players on federal policy and trillions in spending.

With the incoming administration promising to dramatically reshape federal government, the duty to provide vigorous accountability reporting has never been more important.

Can transparency bridge the political divide?

Glenn Scott, Associate Professor of Communication, Elon University

Back when I began covering news as a daily reporter, I knew that my varied readers would draw their own conclusions from the stories I filed. But I also knew that those folks depended on my work and largely accepted it as true.

Today, a wider, meaner and more partisan flow of ideas feeds public perceptions. Readers are more suspicious and willing to question the motives of the mainstream news media. Perhaps no one has stoked these suspicions more ostentatiously than President-elect Donald Trump, who has loudly discredited journalists who have criticized him.

But even before Trump’s win, the Pew Research Center pointed out that political news consumers could not even agree on “basic facts.” President Obama, remarking about the distortions and lies that characterized the campaigns, lamented recently that it’s hard to have serious debates and public discussions when the media has created an environment where “everything is true and nothing is true.”

For more than 30 years, scholars have been studying something called “the hostile media phenomenon” – the tendency of people with highly partisan views to perceive neutral coverage of their issue as unfair. To them, any coverage that doesn’t align with their deeply held convictions is dangerous.

The extent of this hostility leaves news media professionals with choices: They can ride this partisan shockwave, appealing to a fairly stable and perhaps profitable audience of believers. Or they can try to overcome the anger and distrust with practices that reformers have been encouraging long before the bruising presidential campaigns.

That first choice, according to innovating editor Alex Stonehill, is like grabbing low-hanging fruit.

Stonehill, the cofounder of a daily news site in Seattle, argues for steps to embrace the full community, such as to “meet audiences where they are,” to listen without judgment and to be open to all voices. In his cosmopolitan community, the local site’s name points to its purpose: The Seattle Globalist.

On a national level, editors will also need to overcome the effects of media hostility. A few years ago, former newspaper editor Melanie Sill called for a revised approach to reporting – “open journalism” – with an emphasis on service, transparency, accountability and responsiveness. These aren’t new notions. But as Sill noted as she bundled them into one term, newsrooms often haven’t innovated like they could.

Transparency is key. Just as in academia, the wise way to build trust is to show the routes we take to gather and weigh information. Journalists are doing this more now, as calls for it have increased. A nice example is Susanne Craig’s report in The New York Times detailing the discovery of Trump’s 1995 tax records that showed a US$915 million loss. It’s hard to dub The Times a liar after that. Journalist Craig Silverman wrote a lengthy piece on best practices for transparent reporting for the American Press Institute in 2014. Silverman is adept at revealing truths – and lies. He has been the Buzzfeed correspondent breaking stories about fake journalism sites on Facebook.

An environment ripe for propaganda?

Jennifer Glover Konfrst, Assistant Professor of Public Relations, Drake University

The role of media as gatekeeper is critical in a democracy, and Americans expect them to call out propaganda when they see it. In a recent poll, 75 percent of respondents said they believed that news organizations should keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.

Propaganda thrives when the “watchdog” role of journalists is restricted. While not all efforts to circumvent the media result in propaganda, the vacuum created can cause suspicion and mistrust. Propaganda is easier to perpetuate when you shut out the media.

During the second term of the Obama administration, reporters and editors criticized the White House practice of closing events to the press, followed by the distribution of official White House photos to news organizations. In a 2013 New York Times op-ed, the Associated Press’ photography director slammed the practice.

In this aspect, the communication strategies of the nascent Trump administration don’t look promising. When Trump bucked tradition by ditching his pool of reporters to go to dinner, he signaled his continued desire to act on his own terms, without regard for the role of a free press. This is concerning, particularly from a person whose campaign claims were rated “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire” 70 percent of the time.

Also troubling is the fact that Steve Bannon – former executive chair of Breitbart News – has the president-elect’s ear. Breitbart articles frequently promote the views of the so-called “alt-right,” and former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro lamented how the site had turned into “Trump’s personal Pravda.” While Bannon resigned from Breitbart to become Trump’s campaign CEO, he’s called the traditional press “smug” and “elitist.” With that kind of vitriol toward media, Bannon will likely advise Trump to err on the side of restricted access.

Fundamentally, our nation functions best when citizens have access to a free flow of information that can adequately check the policies and pronouncements political leaders. If the public is shut out, misled or told to distrust mainstream sources, propaganda spreads. Then we don’t know what to believe.

A renewed focus on local journalism

Damian Radcliffe, Professor of Journalism, University of Oregon

According to the Pew Research Center, 20,000 jobs have disappeared in newsrooms over the past 20 years, many at the local level. The loss of local newspapers created media deserts: communities starved of original reporting and journalism.

Although the industry economics remain challenging, the need for local journalism is more important than ever. Local outlets play a vital role in defining and informing communities. They can be the first port of call for stories of national significance. They also help communities understand how national developments, whether they’re changes in economic or environmental policy, apply to them.

Fewer boots on the ground has created information voids that have been replaced by cable news, talk radio, social networks and news websites with questionable values or goals.

This creates a disconnect that needs to be addressed. A strong local media needs to be representative – demographically and culturally – of the communities being covered. Yet a 2013 study found that over 90 percent of full-time journalists are college graduates. Just 7 percent identify as Republicans, around one-third are women, and minorities account for only 8.5 percent of the journalistic workforce (while making up 36.6 percent of the population).

The good news is there are signs of reinvention and reinvigoration in local journalism.

The Solutions Journalism Network, the “audience-first” news start-up Hearken and University of Texas’ Engaging News Project are encouraging community engagement. They’ve made practical recommendations, from shifts in what is being reported to the way reporters present stories.

Meanwhile, the ease of online publishing has helped engender an emerging hyperlocal scene. In a 2011 study on the information needs of communities, the FCC acknowledged that “even in the fattest-and-happiest days of traditional media, they could not regularly provide news on such a granular level.”

Still, these efforts are patchy and inconsistent. In an era of divisive post-truth politics, we need bold (well-funded) local journalism to speak truth to power, build social capital and, in the process, instill a sense of pride in place.

Navigating the fake news landscape

Frank Waddell, Assistant Professor of Journalism, University of Florida

After the proliferation of fake news during the 2016 election cycle, the journalism field has come to a grim realization: Accuracy is no longer necessary for news to reach a broad audience. This is particularly problematic on social media, where traditional journalistic functions such as gatekeeping aren’t necessary.

For journalists hoping to cope with the deluge of fake news, the first step is to understand why fake news stories are so successful. One reason is our default instinct to believe what we have been told, a phenomenon that psychologists have coined “truth bias.” We are also easily persuaded by the opinions of others, so the likes, comments and shares of those in our social networks can affirm the validity of fake news stories.

Meanwhile, when we’re overwhelmed with information, we’re more likely to take mental shortcuts like truth bias. The average social media user often must sift through hundreds of news stories on Facebook or Twitter. When deciding whether to click the “share” button, it’s simply easier for readers to trust their gut and go along with the crowd than to carefully consider the veracity of the news story in question.

With these obstacles to accuracy in mind, what can legacy media do? The burden falls on journalists and social media platforms.

News outlets can educate the public in media literacy, debunking viral fake news along the way. Social media sites like Facebook must also do their part, not just by banning the most popular fake news sources, but also through offering their users with easy-to-process cues (like implementing a “verified news” tag) to indicate when news has been posted by a reliable and established source.

It may be our tendency to believe what we read, but that doesn’t mean our natural instincts can’t be reversed.

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