A new column from API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel, published in partnership with the Poynter Institute, about the press and politics, culture and media ethics, technology and the search for sustainability for news.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute

Today, in partnership with Poynter, I launch a new column. In the coming months, it will cover a range of matters — the press and politics, culture and media ethics, information technology and the still-uncertain search for sustainability for news.

I will strive to be timely, but these pieces will also cover concerns about our information culture that sit below the surface of the moment. What is the meaning and the role of objectivity in news — a century-old debate never more alive than now. What is the press’ complicity in political polarization? Will the press really grapple with how journalism has perpetuated racism in America both through its coverage and a default culture in newsrooms, which tends to be white, male-dominated, elitist and also homogeneously liberal?

At times the subject will be democracy itself. Journalism grounded in a search for accurate and truthful accounts of events is fundamentally democratizing. It makes information held by the few available to the many. In so doing it creates a common public square and a common set of facts, without which, historian Timothy Snyder noted recently in The New York Times, “citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.”

There are some “in news” today who are engaged in something else. They pose as journalists but they are not. They knowingly fill the public square with lies. They are political propagandists. And in an effort to counter them, some well-meaning journalists have mistakenly become partisans. One question for the future: Can a common public square still exist?

The change of power in Washington seems an appropriate moment to look ahead. So here are five thoughts as we consider the change in our civic landscape and the role journalists must play in it.

Journalists should help the public understand what’s happened and spend less time speculating what might happen next.

The pressure of the 24-hour news cycle to “spin it forward” saps the authority of the press. Speculation is also a crutch for journalists who don’t have the time to do real reporting. What will happen next? What does this mean? No TV show panelist or news source actually knows. The gifted newspaper editor Gene Roberts used to say it was more difficult to cover news that bends than news that breaks, by which he meant long-running stories and trends that truly impact people’s lives. Right now that requires helping people cope with the pandemic, the economy and the shock of insurrection. The press should spend less time speculating on what public figures haven’t decided yet. If we learn only one thing from the trauma of the last year it should be to serve readers information they actually need.

The press should focus on how the government affects people’s lives, not on the cult of one personality.

In the 1960s, historians note, television transformed Washington journalism by making it White House-centric, pulling attention and power from Congress and federal agencies. The buttermilk columns of the White House provided an irresistible visual backdrop for all things federal. In the digital age, no president exploited this norm like Donald Trump. Now, more than ever, however, we need journalists to cover the whole government, the services and decisions that touch average people every day, and not just the White House, or the mayor’s office, or the most polarizing, narcissistic, attention-seeking politicians. (A new major study confirms this is exactly how TV news now allocates airtime.) The press made the spectacle that is Lindsay Graham, and even to a degree Trump himself. Where does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get the most attention? Watch Fox. Undue attention paid to the wildest actors makes the press an enabler of polarization, not a teller of deeper truths. It also misses most of the story.

The press must be a fair watchdog and prepare to be hated for it.

A few weeks ago one of the best editors in the country wrote a note to his readers promising to hold the Biden administration accountable just as he would any other. The only response he received from readers, he told me, was to be attacked. You are about to fall into false equivalency and both sides-ism, he was scolded. He won’t be the last to hear it. In the coming months, the political left will complain to journalists locally and nationally about false equivalencies — the idea that any missteps by Joe Biden or other Democrat leaders pale by comparison to the sins of Trump and the GOP. The political right will be quick to accuse the press of being soft liberal hypocrites, arguing it spent the last four years trying to hound Trump from office. Hard as it will be, we must take our licks and do our jobs. The press should be tough when necessary, but not performatively so. It should be guided by telling the truth and reflect humility about how much it knows. And it should describe with evidence, not label or stereotype. What does tough-minded fairness look like? Watch Lesley Stahl’s “60 Minutes interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the week after the attack in the Capitol. You’ll see empathy over the attack and Pelosi dodge hard questions over impeachment and policy.

Trump laid a trap for the press but also made it better.

Trump wanted journalists to take sides. To bait them, he called the press fake news and the enemy of the people. Thus he could claim any criticism of him was proof of his accusation. Some in journalism aided his cause by fighting back in rage. But others made their reporting deeper and more transparent. They talked to more sources for every story, worked those sources harder, revealed exactly how many sources they had, and became even more epistemological about proof — knowing the press-hating administration would pounce on the slightest mistake. (This story “is the result of interviews with 15 Trump advisers, members of Congress, GOP officials and other Trump confidants,” a recent Washington Post article noted in what has become a standard of its reporting.) Journalists also studied how best to counter disinformation and tracked the culpability of the platform companies in spreading lies. Let’s hope the more muscular discipline of verification and transparency sticks.

One story now is more important than any other.

Sarah Alvarez, the founder of Outlier Media in Michigan, has developed criteria for deciding where to apply her limited reporting resources. She asks: 1) What is affecting the most people? 2) What is the level of harm? 3) Where are there gaps in what people need to know? By Alvarez’s smart criteria, one story matters most today: the pandemic. The coronavirus threatens everyone in the country. It is lethal and getting worse. (A third of residents of Los Angeles county either have or have had the virus). People are misinformed about it and the economy cannot recover until it is under control. The story is also deeply local as well as national, regional, international. Cover it for what it is — the defining story of our generation, and focus on what the public needs. Get inside local health care systems, identify possible solutions and not just problems, tell stories we have not heard. To survive in a networked world, journalism must be a service — not just a product — one that meets people where they are and helps them make their lives better.

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