It’s been an exhausting time for news. It was the year of the endless push alerts, the Friday-night news dumps, the breaking news on Twitter.
Good riddance. Instead of reprising every headline that made 2018 a maddening year for journalism, we’ve boiled it down to seven themes, big-picture trends that capture the year that was.
These ideas dominated our media moment in 2018, and no doubt will continue to shape things as we move into the new year.
The #MeToo Reckoning
It’s astonishing to remember that it’s only been a year since the Shitty Media Men list emerged to throw a spotlight on sexual harassment in journalism. Moira Donegan wrote about her decision to start the list in a January 2018 essay in the The Cut. What followed was a string of damning revelations about men in every strata of media, from magazines and radio to print and the web. The questions as we move forward are whether the momentum behind the #MeToo movement will continue, and whether any of the men who have been forced to resign will be able to find a way back into the business.
Reporters under threat
It was a particularly deadly year for journalists. In Afghanistan, a series of bombings and attacks killed ten journalists in one day, the deadliest attack in recent times, and journalists were routinely targeted worldwide. In the Philippines, online news site Rappler’s investigative and independent reporting irked President Rodrigo Duterte and led to the order of shutting down the news website. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president after borrowing some of Trump’s most strident anti-press language. In this country, the low point came in June, with the death of five employees at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. While it emerged that the shooter was nursing a private grievance against the paper, the fact that the initial response to the murders was to tie it to Donald Trump’s language was sobering.
Journalism showed its power
The Administration for Children and Families ignored most FOIA requests from journalists hoping to detail and quantify family separations at the border. But a ProPublica recording of sobbing children nevertheless made an impact, helping to keep a national focus on the story. While Trump lashed out at the coverage in a series of rallies, the policy was eventually reversed. While journalists expressed frustration about stories that didn’t have the impact they may have wanted—The New York Times’s Trump business investigation was an oft-cited example—there were numerous other examples of reporting that made a difference. In the final weeks of the year, for instance, it was the reporting of the Chico Enterprise-Record that captured the journalistic imagination. The small paper continued to report on—and to provide life-saving information for—a coverage area that had been largely wiped out by the worst fires in California history.
Media struggled with the Mueller investigation
Coverage of the Mueller probe had the feel of an attempt to describe an elephant but only seeing an inch of its hide. Revelations continued to drip and commentators, particularly on cable TV, continued to draw ominous conclusions. But the former FBI director continued has run a disciplined and tight-lipped investigation and, even though the final weeks of 2018 produced a series of sensational headlines about the latest moves in the inquiry, reporters enter the new year with no better sense of where this will end that when the year started.
Journalism further separated into political silos
Given the high stakes of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, it was perhaps inevitable that the press would have a role in the proceedings. As the controversial nomination gave way to sexual assault allegations and eventually devolved into a partisan brawl, the press was presented with both ethical and practical dilemmas. Christine Blasey Ford revealed that it was unwelcome pressure from journalists that was a driving factor in her decision to come forward with sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, reported regular harassment from journalists, including at home and in the middle of her classes. As the Senate hearing neared, The New Yorker ran a piece bearing new allegations, co-bylined by heavy-hitters Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer. But seeming holes in the piece—the accuser, Deborah Ramirez, admitted to gaps in her memory, and the reporters were unable to obtain eye-witness corroboration of her account—led some critics to question if time pressure had resulted in the piece running before it was ready. What many had hoped might be a moment of national reflection and vindication for sexual assault survivors instead gave way to red versus blue fare, setting the tone for the midterm elections in November.
Race and identity remain a blind spot
In August, news outlets marked the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville attacks with yet another set of blunders having to do with race and white supremacy. Press outlets overhyped a counter-protest by white supremacists, and NPR was widely criticized for giving Jason Kessler, a leader of the protest, a forum to spout some particularly virulent views. It now seems inarguable that media outlets have given characters like Kessler not only too much coverage, but too much unquestioned coverage. In the backdrop, undeniably, is journalism’s own profound race problem: despite decades of promises, America’s newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white; recent surveys have shown that newspapers in the country are about 17 percent nonwhite, 37 percent of the country’s population. CJR devoted an entire print issue to exploring the problem, and there so far is little indication that much is being done to change the state of play.
The Khashoggi case stood alone
In a year of journalists being targeted by governments and others—reporters were killed on five continents in 2018—Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul still shocked for its brazenness and grisly details. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and regular contributor to The Washington Post, first went missing in early October; in the coming weeks, through changing accounts from the Turkish and Saudi governments, it became clear that Khashoggi was assassinated and possibly dismembered. Many foreign governments condemned Saudi Arabia, but reactions from the White House were predictably flat-footed, with Trump citing America’s strategic and economic ties with Saudi Arabia as significant in his approach to the matter: “He denies it, and people around him deny it,” Trump said of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA assesses directed the killing. Khashoggi’s death underscored the relative impunity with which world governments might now snuff out dissenting voices—and the pitfalls of cohesive press narratives.