Through much of the 20th century, US news was dominated by outlets that professed principles of objectivity and nonpartisan balance. Today, outlets that openly declare a political perspective—conservative, progressive, centrist, or otherwise—are more central to American life than at any time since the first journalism schools opened their doors. This has created a divide in consumers; conservative audiences, in particular, express far less trust in mainstream news media than do their liberal counterparts. These divides have contributed to concerns of a “post-truth” age and fanned fears that members of opposing parties no longer agree on basic facts, let alone how to credibly report and interpret the news of the day.
The recent popularity and commercial viability of openly partisan media in the United States can be traced back to the rise of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s. But the expansion of partisan news outlets has accelerated most rapidly on the internet. This expansion has coincided with debates within many digital newsrooms. Should the ideals journalists adopted in the 20th century be preserved in a digital news landscape? Or must today’s news workers forge new relationships with their publics and find alternatives to traditional notions of journalistic objectivity, fairness, and balance?
Despite the centrality of these questions to digital newsrooms, little research on “innovation in journalism” or the “future of news” has explicitly addressed how digital journalists and editors in partisan news organizations are rethinking norms. In particular, researchers have almost entirely ignored news workers in conservative-leaning outlets.
For our new report, Conservative Newswork: A Report on the Values and Practices of Online Journalists on the Right, published today, we interviewed 22 journalists and editors at 14 online conservative news organizations about what guides their news judgments, how they engage audiences, and how they think conservative news outlets should operate. Our findings offer insights into the aspirational ideals of our participants and their newsrooms.
Vividly understanding how conservative news workers articulate their journalistic aspirations is a crucial point of entry to an understudied field. For some critics, the whole enterprise of conservative journalism can be written off as propaganda or as a network of bad-faith actors striving for partisan gain. Questions about the legitimacy of conservative news are leading to consequential debates among civic leaders, tech intermediaries, and mainstream journalists: Facebook has faced criticism over its decision to include conservative news organizations as partners in fact-checking operations, and mainstream journalists grapple with questions such as whether to link to certain conservative outlets and how to treat their claims. For some conservatives, these very debates reinforce the perception of a media sphere dominated by liberals who are all too quick to dismiss conservatives as illegitimate participants.
Still, our interviews suggest that contemporary conservative news workers are grappling with many of the same questions and dilemmas as digital journalists at nonpartisan outlets. All are rethinking once-dominant journalistic norms—especially objectivity—while trying to survive and compete in a digital environment, and forging new relationships with audiences. Several of our key findings point to similarities between conservative digital news and other forms of digital journalism:
- Most of our interviewees espoused a set of journalistic ideals shared by traditional nonpartisan journalists. Among these ideals are accuracy, fair representation of differing perspectives, and measured tone in debate.
- There is no consensus on the roles of objectivity or balance as journalistic ideals. Some conservative news organizations subscribe to conventional notions of fairness and balance, and see impartial reporting as a worthwhile practice. Others advocate for radical subjectivity, and contend that all reporters (conservative or otherwise) ought to be transparent about their political and other biases—trusting in the audience to assess the veracity of news on the basis of “authenticity.”
- Our interviewees largely expressed a desire to engage with a broad public beyond committed conservatives. Most envisioned a pluralist public sphere with news, commentary, and criticism coming from many perspectives. The journalists we spoke with did not want to participate solely in an insular conservative enclave, though there is a debate within the field about whether to try to influence mainstream journalism or form a wholly separate countersphere. A similar debate has taken place among progressives in terms of whether to build alternative journalism institutions or try to influence mainstream reporting.
- Like other political reporters working for niche publications such as Roll Call or Politico, some conservative journalists put a special emphasis on reaching policymakers and other elite audiences. Many of our interviewees felt that certain audience members (policymakers, activists) were most important, and they were attuned to the way those audiences could leverage the impact of their reporting.
- The editors we spoke with say they are typically looking to hire reporters who are more interested in covering news than in overt political advocacy. While conservative news outlets do seek reporters who share a common understanding of conservative thought, they express concern about hiring news staff who primarily want to engage in partisan advocacy.
- The size and structures of conservative news organizations tend to correspond with their orientation toward either news reporting or commentary. With some exceptions (most notably the National Review), outlets with large staffs, specialized reporting positions, and a full editorial hierarchy tend to be more oriented toward news reporting. More commentary-driven sites (e.g. The Federalist, The Resurgent) tend to be less internally structured, with a higher reliance on casual and remote labor.
- Most of our interviewees pay close attention to how audiences react to their work, but different reporters and organizations use that information in different ways. Some embrace audience influence in steering coverage (at least in some respects) while others resist it. A small minority of our participants described actively shielding themselves from certain feedback mechanisms, avoiding social media or metrics.
These findings suggest that online conservative journalists face many of the same dilemmas as other digital journalists, and the two groups’ norms are not totally irreconcilable. However, the values and practices of conservative journalists are shaped by their proximity (both conceptual and geographic) to both mainstream political journalism and the modern conservative movement. This affinity results in sensibilities and challenges that are unique to the conservative journalism field:
- Many participants said they believed that conservative journalism as a whole is treated unfairly by the mainstream press. This was unifying among many of our interviewees, who believe conservative journalists and organizations are held to unfair standards and judged by a mistaken association with fringe elements of the conservative news sphere. For some, this sense of conservatives as embattled justifies limiting media criticism of other conservative outlets and focusing critique on what they see as liberal, mainstream media―and traces back to the origins of modern conservative media.
- Many participants said they see few other conservative outlets as high-quality news sources. Many interviewees described their own publication’s commitment to accuracy, thoroughness, or fairly representing fact as an exception within the field of conservative news.
- Participants varied in how well they felt conservative journalism was doing at representing a diversity of conservative perspectives. While most of our interviewees wanted to see conservative outlets opening themselves to vigorous debate among diverging conservative opinions, several of those we spoke with felt conservative media as a whole was falling short in this regard during the Trump presidency by marginalizing conservative perspectives critical of Trump’s honesty and character.
- Conservative journalists disagree on how to respond to conspiracy theories and misinformation. Most of our interviewees acknowledged that misinformation circulating among conservatives was a real problem, but they differed in whether they thought the problem of misinformation was any different among conservative audiences than liberal ones. They also differed as to whether and when they thought conservative outlets should take active steps to fact-check and discredit conspiracy theories or misinformation circulating among conservative audiences. This differs from the attitude of the mainstream press in that some conservative journalists felt they had a special role to play in debunking conspiracies that appealed to their fellow conservatives. Others suggested the mainstream press debunks right-wing conspiracies, so they saw their role as criticizing left-wing conspiracies.
- While conservative journalists enter the profession via many paths, the least circuitous involves plugging into the modern conservative movement. They might share similar functions in terms of career advancement, but the political networks in which conservative journalists travel are distinct from the educational and social networks more likely to launch the careers of reporters working in the mainstream press.
- Our interviewees tend to assume their audiences want US political stories that resonate with their everyday lives, and especially stories seen as improperly reported or underreported by mainstream media. They spoke to us about various types of stories they felt were consistently underreported by US media, such as investigations of liberal institutions such as labor unions and stories about gun culture and religious life.
We conclude with a discussion of our findings’ implications for future efforts to understand the changing sphere of conservative news. First, we analyze what this research reveals about tensions within the field that are particular to this historical juncture—a moment when conservative journalists are negotiating among the competing imperatives of journalistic autonomy, conservative ideology, and loyalty to a party with Donald Trump at its helm. Conditions unique to the Trump administration have given rise to two clashing narratives from within the conservative news sphere, and both offer pleas regarding the duties and perils they say conservative journalists face at this moment. One voice implores fellow conservatives to demonstrate principles over political expediency and calls for uninhibited criticism of Trumpism’s influence on the right. The other voice cries out for fellow conservatives to stand unified and relentless in opposition to what is framed as an unprecedented assault by a putatively liberal media on Trump, his party, and its supporters.
Looking beyond this moment, we present a preliminary guide to five key differences among conservative news outlets in their editorial philosophies: orientation toward original reporting, adaptation of professional news norms, stances toward engagement with a pluralist public sphere, audience orientation and characteristic style, and orientation toward viewpoint diversity within conservatism. These represent underlying differences in approach that will likely remain useful for differentiating conservative news outlets from traditional newsrooms for the foreseeable future.
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