A year to turn the page

The year 2020 has been humbling in the face of nature. The coronavirus pandemic rattled the earth and revealed just how unstable the ground beneath us was. For journalists, the avalanche of life-or-death news crashed into an industry already beset by acute financial strain, the warping effects of disinformation, and long-standing inequity. In the print pages of the Columbia Journalism Review, we’ve looked at a media ecosystem confronting the realities of our distressed planet and the people who inhabit it. 

First, in the spring, was the climate issue. E. Tammy Kim turned her attention to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, keeper of the Doomsday Clock and the only outlet whose approach to the climate crisis is explicitly existential. “Nuclear can do us in in an afternoon; climate change will take much longer,” Kennette Benedict—the Bulletin’s former director and publisher, who oversaw the inclusion of climate change in the clock-setting—told Kim. “The two crises,” Kim observed, “are now an inseparable apocalyptic pair.” Emily Atkin, the author of a daily climate newsletter called Heated, shares that sense of alarm: “I knew the truth about climate change. And the truth was we were running out of time.” In a column, Atkin explained why she had tossed aside the rules of dispassionate reporting in favor of more assertive language: “My climate grief regenerated as rage, and my writing became better, more honest, and more fulfilling.” Michael Specter, who has been covering science and environmental stories since the first tours of Anthony Fauci and Al Gore, implored journalists not to lose faith in hard facts: “Theoretical tragedy doesn’t make an impression.”

Lauren Markham profiled Lizzie Johnson, whose job, as a fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, takes her to flame-ravaged communities charting a path to recovery. “To live in California during fire season is to feel that your state has fallen off the map,” Markham wrote. “There are days at a stretch when homes burn, the air fills with smoke, and the power is cut, turning off refrigerators, respirators, heaters, streetlights.” Johnson settled in Paradise, the site of the worst blaze in the state’s history, knowing that the climate crisis promises to abet even more damage in the future. Jenni Monet reported from Indian Country, where, she wrote, “Tribal citizens are among the most vulnerable people in the country to climate change”—for reasons more complicated than newspaper articles typically allow. Tom Kizzia sent a dispatch from the Arctic: Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the United States, oil production dominates state policy, and climate activists find coverage sorely lacking. As a local journalist told Kizzia, “The basic story is, ‘We’re all going to die, but meanwhile here are some beautiful photos.’ ” Eva Holland zeroed in on the most ubiquitous signifier of the climate crisis, and a decidedly problematic mascot—the polar bear. 

In the summer, people poured out of quarantine to join an uprising for racial justice led by Black Lives Matter. Where the presidential campaigns had stalled out—as Simon van Zuylen–Wood wrote, political pundits were replaced by medical experts; one talking head said that “Real life has now punctured the bubble of political bullshit in Washington”—the protests carried a personal sense of political purpose. Jack Herrera observed how quickly the press folded demands for police abolition into an election narrative. In previous years, he wrote, “The question of taking money away from cops did not register on the radar of candidates or campaign reporters. Now, suddenly, it had exploded as a central campaign plot point.” He added, “The underinformed takes raged on.” 

Most Americans now prefer to watch, instead of read, their news, so the summer issue tuned in, too. “If the tensions—and outright hostilities—present in the Democratic Party are also coursing through the halls of the network that aims to cover it, you would think that might make for good television,” Adam Piore wrote in his investigation of MSNBC. “Instead, what the audience sees is a breathless, perpetual four-alarm fire drill, a confused jumble of viewpoints tipped to favor the old guard, and personalities forged in the Darwinian crucible of Nielsen quarter-hour rating reports.” Stephania Taladrid examined the role that Univision has played as a lifeline to Spanish speakers in an unprecedented year. “Only recently have campaign strategists begun to tap into Latino voters’ yearning to be part of the political process,” she wrote. “And Univision has been uniquely positioned to cover the community’s political rise.” And Nicholson Baker entered the mind-churning abyss of YouTube, where he found “a vast amount of incendiary fantasy.” Hitting pause, Alexandria Neason confronted the perils of information overload in her profile of the author Joanne McNeil: “There’s just too much to process, and she’s experienced this since at least the dawn of cable news, as she’s found the cycle of political coverage, in particular, to be loud, incessant, and prolonged.” Neason tried McNeil’s coping mechanism: lurking.

All through the year, the journalism industry felt the effects of the pandemic, as reporters put their bodies on the line to cover its spread and as media companies cowered in the face of financial loss. There were devastating pay cuts, layoffs, and closures. For the winter issue, Abe Streep wrote about a formidable local publisher in Pueblo, Colorado, who turned to his town for assistance, got none, and wound up as the mouthpiece for the government he once scrutinized. “I found myself in the curious position of reaching out to city leaders to corroborate an uncomfortable account involving their unwillingness to fund local journalism that had been provided by their current communications director,” Streep wrote. Calls from the protests carried into newsrooms, as staff members confronted their managers about inequities and bias against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. As Maya Binyam reported, unions seized the moment, seeking to put those managers’ best intentions to legally enforceable contract language. But, as a union representative told her, “Everybody is failing.”

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Some journalists bailed on institutions entirely. As Clio Chang wrote, Substack, the online newsletter platform, became increasingly popular this year. Chang couldn’t help but notice, though, that it had both promise and pitfalls: “The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative”; a few “offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left.” She wondered, “Will Substack replicate the patterns of marginalization found across the media industry, or will it help people locked out of the dominant media sphere to flourish?” Some commentators garnered wide audiences on YouTube, as Mary Retta wrote, and on Twitter, where, as Leah Sottile reported, the first responders of journalism streamed live from the summer’s protests. Sottile observed, “Those putting themselves in danger to report from the scene were, by and large, the same people whose identity made them most vulnerable to violence.”

Locally, there are signs of hope and perseverance—Darryl Holliday, of Chicago’s City Bureau, wrote of finding inspiration in mutual aid; Tasneem Raja, the editor of The Oaklandside, moved up the launch of her operation in order to deliver public health information at the start of the coronavirus outbreak. It is not the end of the world, only certain story lines. Consider these words from Julian Brave NoiseCat: “To be Indigenous to North America is to be part of a postapocalyptic community and experience. Indigenous journalists have always grappled with earth-shattering stories.” His piece, like all the others we’ve published in the magazine this year, contains lessons worth carrying with us into the next. Thanks for reading.

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Betsy Morais is managing editor of CJR.