Why do so many people hate journalists so much? I think part of the answer is journalism isn’t only what you think it is. Gimme a sec.
Spoiler: I’m a journalist but more properly I’m a guy who founded a local news organization 15 years ago. Still going! So my entire professional career has been spent on the sustainability of local journalism. Career choices!
So the last few months have generated another big wave of layoffs, bankruptcies and cuts at news organizations — a lot of prominent national ones but also local news orgs. And if you’re younger than, say, idk, 40 then your entire adult life has only been a series of rolling cuts at news organizations. This wasn’t always the story but for most of us, it’s as seasonal as cicadas.
And this go-round, a bunch of people are cheering the fall of the media elite. And I get it, but I think it’s misplaced.
Journalism is a word that carries a lot of connotation. For a lot of Americans, it’s an ideal that no one, or very few people, ever live up to, ‘cause we mostly think of it in terms of INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM. Digging into court records, chasing government accountability, fact-checking leaked corporate documents. And that stuff is important and kinda sexy, which is why we make movies about it.
But journalism isn’t only that. Just like music isn’t only opera. It’s one genre.
I use another definition: Journalism is a strategy that uses fact-finding and storytelling to help a community reach the closest approximation of its truth. Or as Carl Bernstein famously put it: “the best obtainable version of the truth”
Put more simply: Journalism is a strategy, not an industry.
Which gets us back to why people hate journalists so much. One of the most interesting bits of research that Pew does is on trust, and how much Americans trust all different kinds of institutions. One of those institutions they track is journalism. Overall trust in all institutions has been declining for a long time in the United States, especially with the rise of the internet and social media. And, all institutions took a bruising during the pandemic, but trust has fallen especially hard in news orgs.
Why? Why has trust fallen in journalism so much more quickly than other institutions, like courts, science and even police?
Absolutely part of it is because the places that employed most journalists — news orgs — have been arrogant as hell.
And the business models that underpinned those traditional news orgs for a long time were some of the first to get chopped up by digital transformation, which created new pressures sooner than for other institutions.
But it’s also because we have too narrow a view of what journalism is.
Social media platforms are full of brilliant, interesting, curious and informed people, who gather information, fact-check stuff and tell stories to help us learn about ourselves. They’re committing acts of journalism. Lots of nonprofits, advocacy groups and data resources are doing journalism. You consume lots of journalism that doesn’t come news organizations.
Saying you hate journalism is like saying you hate medicine. A particular kind of business that uses journalism — like, idk, private-equity owned ad-and-subscriber funded newspapers — might piss you off. Just like idk private-equity owned hospital chains might piss you off.
But journalism is a centuries-old strategy to help us better know ourselves. No one should cheer its demise.