It’s a well-established truth that one of the greatest indicators of a healthy and functioning democracy is the ability to disseminate accurate and accessible journalism to the general public. And, as midterm elections loom right around the corner, journalism could not be more crucial right now: the continuation of democratic backsliding, economic turmoil and deep political divisions are some of our most obvious challenges as a country. On the surface, not much is different from the American political landscape of the ’60s and ’70s. And yet, in living rooms and handheld devices across the country, our reality is much more stark: whether a fact is in fact a fact is being contested, misinformation runs rampant and common ideals such as democracy, citizenry and voting have become foundations for contentious debate.
In times such as these, I am always inclined to read from my favorite journalists and publications. Their voices are often a guiding light in a sea of noise, shaping and capturing the zeitgeist of the moment. But, given the amount of unprecedented conflict that surrounds us, I am often left questioning whether or not the institution of journalism can last in a way that’s sustainable. Newsrooms are shutting down across the country, social media has disrupted the ethics of storytelling and if the truth isn’t convincing enough, there is a conspiracy theory or flat-out lie waiting in the shadows — and often in broad daylight — to take its place.
To get an idea of what lies ahead for the future of journalism and what role we as students play in amplifying and supporting the free press, I sat down with a couple of Knight-Wallace Fellows: Meg Martin and Masrat Zahra. Martin is a freelance editor with a storied career in local journalism and Zahra is a decorated Kashmiri photojournalist covering human rights, war and the voices of marginalized communities. These are accomplished storytellers and story shapers who spent a year at the University of Michigan pursuing ambitious projects in the field. After my conversation with these fellows, I walked away with three forward-facing solutions for the future of journalism.
One: journalism needs new allies — and college students are uniquely poised to step into this role. Two, “objectivity” in journalism has to die. The future of our democracy depends on it. Finally, journalism may not be able to heal our deep divisions, but it could be the place we lay down our arms.
Increasingly, more people receive their news in short-form content and sound bites than in traditional long-form media. And while short-form content isn’t new, platforms such as TikTok, Twitter and Facebook are. These days anyone can publish information or cover an event without the traditional frameworks and ethical conduct of an established newsroom. And while that poses numerous threats, Zahra argues this also poses many opportunities, particularly for engagement.
Zahra credits the eponymous hashtag for how quickly news about Mahsa Amini’s death was able to circulate around the globe. Zahra told me that “without social media, this story risked being silenced. These mediums are incredibly powerful for both journalists and engagement and we can use them to create awareness around issues we care about.”
Who better to be good stewards of information in the digital, sound-bite age than university students? Think about it: We largely occupy the social media spaces of the internet, and at the same time, because of our time in college, we have myriad tools to question and critique media and information. Where are things being sourced? Is a certain voice an authority on the topic? Is the data accurate? “Students can be the connective tissue between short-form and social media content and traditional long-form content,” Martin said.
Because so much of what we produce and engage with in universities exists under a code of ethics where we constantly have to verify our sources and present fact-sounding arguments, college students have an amazing role to play as smart, critically-thinking consumers and sharers of news. Because we navigate both of these spaces, we can take what we know about accountability, verification, reliability and accuracy, and bring that level of thoughtfulness to social platforms.
When Watergate unfolded across TV screens, there wasn’t a dedicated news channel or radio station reporting on mistruths. Nixon had his supporters and his dissenters, but ultimately the political processes and investigations that played out weren’t interfered with, the president resigned and Gerald R. Ford took his place in the Oval Office. Today, news and media platforms not only spread mistruths, but they also give a wider audience to people in power spreading false information. Journalists must start taking a stand on what they choose to amplify and publish.
The biggest critique of this proposal is that journalism should be neutral and give equal attention to both sides regardless of ideology. The reality is that some, including prominent Canadian journalist Candis Callison, considerity objectivity to be “the view from nowhere.” All news asserts a position — even news that feels harmless. Take a recent headline from a New York Times article: “Lots of Food Gets Tossed. These Apps Let You Buy It Cheap.” The editor isn’t simply reporting on a food app; they are staking out the position that food waste is bad, and there is something being done about it that we should all know about.
“Journalists can’t just be mouthpieces for the government or the powerful,” Zahra said. “They should strive to share what’s right and what’s truthful.” And, in order to do this, journalists must take a stand. This should matter to all of us as consumers of media. What we read is not just a reflection of the world around us, it is also a reflection and a molding of public opinion. We are what we read, after all, and our identities and values are deeply tied to the stories that are amplified by the media.
While journalism can’t heal all of our divisions, it can be the place we lay down our arms. “I don’t know that any one field or thing can be the answer,” Martin said. “Our roles are not just to hold people in power accountable or to simply inform.” She points to working in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the main responsibility for journalists at the time was getting out reliable information in as many ways as possible.
But then, after the murder of George Floyd, she and others in the field began to realize that journalists have to offer much more: “I think there is a role for us to provide a space for humility, to allow people to wrestle with grief, fear, uncertainty and to simply process.” Journalism can’t just exist to provide statements and press releases. It is not enough for journalists to talk at or to the public; intentionally talking with people is necessary. This institution has to be a place for us to let go of our defensive posture and encourage dialogue that motivates people to have difficult conversations — not shy away from them.
Elina Morrison is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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