Journalists in America often find themselves at the forefront in adopting new story models and the newest technologies in their reporting. Drone journalism, interactive graphics, live fact-checkers, news apps, data journalism—just to name a few.
Alongside these vibrant media outlets are media watchdogs and innovation labs whose goals are to improve the work of the press: critiquing its methods and identifying the challenges it faces, then suggesting and deploying solutions back into the industry to help journalists do their work better. This is where forward-thinking journalists come in to experiment with these solutions in their stories.
In theory, the media ecosystem here is somewhat of a utopia. Except it is far from perfect.
The reality is that newsroom decision makers have to juggle multiple challenges beyond holding the powerful accountable. They have to explore new technologies and adapt to new platforms, compete for page views, budget, manpower, air time, etc.
But in the aftermath of last year’s presidential election, one problem overshadows all others—American’s trust in the media is on a sharp decline.
At journalism conferences across the United States, reporters and editors tackle these new realities of the media landscape: a strange reality where “trust is more important than the truth”.
How do you regain trust from the public when you fail to predict the outcome of the election by such a large margin? How do you respond when the president claims that the media is “the enemy of the people”? Where does fair and accurate reporting stand when hyper-partisan news gains popularity in the age of filter bubbles?
Oftentimes, it means revisiting the very core values of what it means to be a journalist. Here’s what I learnt:
“If you get to know us, we’re actually not that bad.”
An obvious way for the press to regain its credibility is to shine more light on its methods.
In recent years, journalists has increasingly embraced the idea of building a personal brand. In journalism school, we are told to be active on Twitter because sharing your educated opinion, engaging in conversation, and promoting your recently published work attract a personal following, which can lead to new job opportunities, lifelong mentors and friends. Of course, this can also help generate more traffic to the publication’s website.
But having an online presence is an opportunity to invite readers behind the scenes. Once you have an audience, you can start doing things like crowdsource information right from your audience and get ideas for stories. One textbook example which came right out of the election is David Fahrenthold’s efforts in monitoring Trump’s charitable claims. The Washington Post reporter’s work was so outstanding that it won him a Pulitzer prize, the Oscars for journalists. And how did he do it? With good ol’ pen and paper and persistence.
— David Fahrenthold (@Fahrenthold) September 2, 2016
Even after the election, he continues to maintain transparency in his work. He tweets screenshots of emails and questions that he had sent to the Press Secretary and other Trump representatives.
The openness he insists on his platform has inspired readers to get in on the action:
This strategy has also inspired the creation of news models that are built specifically with transparency in mind, such as the Open Notebook by Hearken, and WikiTribune by Wikipedia’s founder. Both try to engage readers early-on in the editorial process, allowing them to vote on story ideas and edit the piece.
It is easy to see why transparency is the obvious solution. As Sara Cohen, New York Times reporter and editor, explained in a panel called “Investigative Journalism in the Trump era” in March: “If you get to know us, we’re actually not that bad.”
Representing local communities
The biggest issue the mainstream media had with reporting about the election was misrepresenting huge swaths of the country that are the Midwest. Major publications in the States, such as the New York Times and FiveThirty8, send reporters to cover stories at the federal level, in turn sacrificing city-level stories that resonate better with neighborhoods or rural communities, as they just aren’t as lucrative as the stories that interest readers in Beijing and London.
A local story breaking into national news is almost like Hong Kong making international headlines. You would almost never find a story about a scandal involving New York City’s mayor in national news unless it has something to do with Trump’s business ties, for example. In the case of the election, the stories of Trump supporters in rural states just got lost in the liberal narrative that many major news outlets tell.
Asking readers what stories journalists should cover is a common strategy that some news outlets are gradually adopting. But collaboration can go beyond the consumer side of journalism. In March, The Guardian invited reporters who cover communities to write for them – particularly stories they “don’t see reflected in the national media very often”.
Journalism as a product, not individual articles
Journalists hardly go a day without writing about Trump. As news outlets step up their efforts to monitor the new administration, how can journalists help readers see the big picture and understand the work of those in power? Instead of writing about a new executive order or cabinet appointment as an individual update, how do you illustrate how it fits into the whole context of the Trump administration and its power structure?
Beyond using data and documents to bulletproof their reporting, National Public Radio’s Tyler Fisher recommends that reporters build “expandable resources” instead of “incremental stories”. An evolving report card, so to speak. At the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, Fisher talked about two examples from the NPR: The Trump ethics monitor is a regularly updated piece tracking the promises he has made and those resolved (so far, none); another is their live annotation model for events like debates or a presidential address. This is a way of “turning spectacle into evidence”, and fact-checking and providing context on a primary source again produces a long-lived resource, as opposed to writing multiple analyses on specific topics that the event touches on afterwards.
Just do good journalism
At the end of the day, it still comes down to doing good journalism, no matter size of the newsroom or the resources that it has. This means refraining from the lazy, he-said, she-said journalism that leaves it up for readers to separate right from wrong. Inviting seven pundits or industry representatives who represent different viewpoints to talk about an issue and drawing no conclusion cannot be considered balanced and unbiased reporting: it’s irresponsible. As Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said, “That’s the role of the stenographer. Journalists give perspective.”
Epilogue: An example from Hong Kong
Initium Media, a Chinese digital media outlet which announced in April that it is laying off 70 percent of its staff due to lack of funds, started publishing infographics which explain the costs, workflow, and manpower that go into some of their in-depth reporting.
One could argue that good work speaks for itself, but in times of financial duress, showing readers the amount of resources they dedicate to producing quality journalism serves as a fitting reminder that a free press is not free.
Natalie Lung is a third-year Journalism and Computer Science student at the University of Hong Kong passionate about the intersection of journalism and technology. She is all in for exploring the quirkest parts of the world and has been to North and South Korea, Myanmar, India, and historical war sites in Germany, Austria, Bosnia, and Croatia. Currently, you can find her in the middle of America, in a small college town doing her exchange semester at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.