The Media Today

Before I go: Why journalism matters

October 13, 2023

Four years ago, CJR published a print magazine titled “How They See Us,” about the gap between how journalists are perceived by the world and how they see themselves.

We published that issue in the depths of a Trump administration that made vilification of the press a central plank of governing. One result was record-low trust in the media; another was a crisis of confidence among some reporters. If the number of Americans inclined to believe Trump, and disbelieve the press, stayed the same—despite all the reporting about his malfeasance—did journalism matter? And if significant numbers of people are never going to believe us anyway, why not move on, and focus on an audience that is more in line with what we have to say? I wrote at the time:

Journalists have long thought that we have unique access to a greater truth, and, if others can’t see or won’t accept it, we soldier on, smugly content in the knowledge that right is on our side. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if that attitude doesn’t change, journalism as we know it may not survive. We desperately need our readers; there isn’t a viable business model that doesn’t count subscription or membership revenue as a central plank.

But it would be a mistake, and shortsighted, to frame the need to repair the relationship between the press and the general public as mainly a business problem. It is that, but journalism is also an enterprise in civic duty. If we are unwilling to engage with people about how they see us, we fail to perceive the world as it is, and we’re unable to do our jobs.

Four years on, the project of journalism in America is as unsettled as ever. And the core problem is the same one we flagged in 2019: How do you go about doing your work in the face of an audience that often seems not to care? How do you measure journalism that isn’t having the impact you want or expect?

The answer is that you do it anyway. Democracy is under siege, here and around the world. The climate emergency is upon us. Disinformation is a growing scourge. All of these issues are the focus of endless, fearless, and powerful reporting. And yet Trump, the anti-democracy candidate, is holding his own in most national polls, there’s too little public pressure on governments to change their approaches to energy and address the climate emergency, and the technology monopolies remain dominant.

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It’s easy to be demoralized. Stories one would hope would land with a jolt often simmer instead. Bad actors can transform good reporting into controversy. It all adds up to an existential angst in journalism that has only grown worse in recent years, as newsrooms have shrunk and closed, and as agents of misinformation have become bolder. These jobs are hard enough when we believe that our reporting can move the needle. If we don’t, throwing up our hands (in an increasingly empty newsroom) seems a reasonable response.

Our only answer is to keep doing what we’re doing, focusing less on the results of our work and more on the importance of telling the truth to our audience. It’s the only part of the whole messy process we control. 

This is my last column as CJR’s editor and publisher, after seven years. I’m leaving to devote all of my energies to improving journalists’ coverage of the climate crisis, over at Covering Climate Now. For the past seven years, I’ve been as close as anyone to questions around how journalism does and doesn’t work, how the public sees us, and how we can do better. It’s been a privileged perch. And throughout that time—through Trump and #MeToo and COVID and hurricanes and war—the question of the utility, the purpose, of journalism has been a through line.  

Before I go, here are a few specific steps we can take to navigate through this moment:

Cut remaining ties to Twitter. Elon Musk’s social network no longer is a contributor to an informed public; it’s a leading source of disinformation, as the attack on Israel has once again shown. For years now, journalists have been able to hold their nose and argue that the benefits of Twitter—distributing their work, exposing them to different views, lifting up unheard voices—outweighed the downsides. The stench is now undeniable. Reporters and newsrooms are better off without contributing to it. You can, if you want, stay to lurk and monitor the conversation (which is what I occasionally do). But contributing to it, or using the platform as any sort of gauge of the wider conversation, has become pointless.

Get out of your bunker. Unplugging from Twitter has the benefit of forcing journalists to find other ways to connect with people they don’t understand. It’s not a chore; it’s one of the perks of being a reporter. Search out people and institutions who don’t read you. Engage with news and analysis that make you uncomfortable. Your journalism will be better for it.

Pay no attention to audience metrics. Journalists lose faith in what they do when it appears no one reads their work, or when the work they do doesn’t have the impact they think it should. We need to think of this as a much longer game. Information now enters the media bloodstream in all kinds of different ways, some immediate, some longer-term. We don’t have a lot of control over how that will happen. Have a clear sense of what you want to say and why it’s important. It will find an audience eventually.

Break from the media pack. The attacks on the press have created a bunker mentality among reporters, which can be beneficial. There are times when we need the support of our peers. But it’s also made us more bound to each other than is helpful. We’re here to serve our audience. Those are the people we should lock arms with.

Remember that the response to stories isn’t personal. If audiences aren’t engaging with what you do, it’s probably not because they don’t like you. Sometimes they’ll have a political beef with your news outlet. But more often than that, they’re missing the story because we haven’t found a way to make it resonate with them. We haven’t told the story in a way that matters. That’s on us. The more we can approach that problem with an open mind, and a resolve to connect, the more we can close the trust gap in journalism.

I believe in the power and purpose of journalism. It’s why I got into the business in elementary school. But a lot of us have become afraid: that our work doesn’t matter, that our jobs are in jeopardy, that people hate us for what we do. We’ve lost sight of the mission of our calling, which, at this point in the life of our planet, is more important than ever.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, an official Israeli social media account posted graphic images of dead babies whose bodies were mutilated by Hamas, intensifying an existing dilemma for news outlets as to what to republish; various US networks aired at least one of the images—“I know it’s difficult to see,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said, “but I want you to consider not looking away”—while in the UK, the Telegraph trailed one of the images in big font on the front page, then printed it on page three. Meanwhile, Israel ordered the swift evacuation of more than a million people from the northern part of Gaza, a demand the UN described as “impossible” without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” Yesterday, Adnan Elbursh, of the BBC, recorded an extraordinary personal dispatch from inside a hospital in Gaza. “You never want to become the story,” he said. “But in my city, I feel helpless.”
  • Also yesterday, in Washington, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives descended further into chaos after Steve Scalise—who won an internal party vote to become Speaker following the ouster, last week, of Kevin McCarthy—realized that he didn’t have the support to win a vote on the House floor, and dropped out of the running. Pundits on Fox and other right-wing channels have fulminated about the recent chaos in the House GOP, but Brian Rosenwald writes for Politico that they have only themselves to blame: “Going back to the 1990s,” Rosenwald argues, “conservative media created the political ecosystem in which torching and targeting Republican leaders is good politics on the right.” (CJR’s Jon Allsop had a similar take in this newsletter last week.)
  • After New York Public Radio, the parent of WNYC, laid off 6 percent of its staff last week, Hot Pod’s Amrita Khalid and Ariel Shapiro report that the company is undergoing a strategic pivot. The cuts were concentrated within WNYC Studios, the network’s podcast arm, with LaFontaine Oliver, NYPR’s CEO, telling staffers this week that they must now focus on shows that can go “from broadcast to podcast,” serving both linear radio listeners in New York and podcast audiences globally. Two WNYC podcasts—La Brega and More Perfect—were axed during the recent cuts. A third, Death, Sex & Money, will sunset at the end of the year unless a buyer or sponsor can be found.
  • Gannett may have sparked a major media-industry buzz when it recently announced plans to hire a Taylor Swift beat reporter (a move that we covered in this newsletter)—but Poynter’s Kristen Hare notes that the Kansas City Star, which is owned by McClatchy, got a jump on its competitor “by default” when Swift showed up at a recent Kansas City Chiefs football game amid rumors of a romance with Travis Kelce, the team’s tight end. “Our tip line is filled with Travis and Taylor tips of late,” Andale Gross, the managing editor, told Hare. “We called it unofficially the Taylor and Travis beat.”
  • And the New York Review of Books is out with a new issue celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. “Speaking truth to power is the aim of any paper,” Emily Greenhouse, the Review’s editor, said. “But the kind of truth that we at the Review fight for is the truth about ideas. This is a publication that seeks to understand the world—and I do mean the whole world, especially areas that rarely receive attention—with nuance and honesty. In that sense we are the same paper we were in 1963.”

ICYMI: Kyle Pope’s CJR archives

Kyle 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.