Months ago, when we started planning this issue and framing our subject as “The Year That Changed Journalism,” we thought we might be accused of hyperbole. Now it’s understatement that has us worried.
The world of journalism is a fundamentally different place as a result of the election of Donald J. Trump. In this issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, we’ve set out to catalogue what’s changed—and to chart where we’ll go from here.
The challenges are immense. As Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger outlines in his sobering opening essay, we are living under an American president who doesn’t seem to accept the central role of a free press in a democratic society. That’s never happened in the United States before. And while Trump delivers his threats in ways that can appear trivial and petty—juvenile name-calling and taunts, hyperbolic tweets, ridicule of The New York Times—the fallout is deeply consequential.
While Trump delivers his threats in ways that can appear trivial and petty…the fallout is deeply consequential.
A new press freedom tracker, supported by a consortium of media groups that includes CJR, documents increased physical threats against reporters, legal challenges that hinder journalists’ ability to do their jobs, and efforts to restrict the open flow of government information. The tracker’s editor, Peter Sterne, and CJR press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters write about the anti-media climate stoked by the president.
While these hurdles are hardly the stuff of “fake news,” it would be wrong to paint the past year as an entirely dark one for journalism. The attacks have emboldened newsrooms and the people in them, reminding journalists why they got into this business in the first place. Margaret Sullivan, who covers media for The Washington Post, writes in this issue about how she decided to become a journalist in part because of the Post’s work to uncover the Watergate scandal. It’s entirely possible that the current era could inspire its own generation of young Margaret Sullivans.
Part of what makes this moment so energizing for journalists is that it has forced us to grapple with some enormous, and enormously difficult, issues. We can thank the president for that, as well. We have debated whether and how to call out Trump’s untruths and how much attention to give his incessant tweets. We have grappled with how to respond when the nation’s leader calls us enemies of the American people. We have even struggled over whether it’s appropriate to discuss the president’s mental health.
Overlaying those debates have been bigger questions about impartiality and opinion, about how we cover race, about the bubbles journalists can inhabit that prevent us from reporting on people who aren’t like us. Those discussions are just beginning.
It’s easy, at a time of rolling scandals and hourly push alerts, to lose sight of how extraordinary this moment is: Any one of the journalistic challenges we’ve faced this year would ordinarily have been more than enough to occupy us for months. The fact that we’ve lived through so many already speaks to the historic nature of our age. Someday, when history books look back on The Year That Changed Journalism, we’ll all have the great good fortune to say, “I was there.”
—Kyle Pope, Editor and PublisherKyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.