Dec 18, 2020

Journalism’s Path Forward

Reporting Texas

Newspapers rolling off big city and small-town printing presses. Radio and television broadcasts flying through airwaves. Cable news around the clock.

Adding to that information highway, the constant gratification offered by the Internet and social media platforms turning  anyone into a reporter, editor and influencer.

One constant is journalism. An industry dependent upon truth, fact-finding and verification, struggling to stay relevant to the zeitgeist.

New technology and changing mediums sped up the pace of the news cycle, decreased people’s appetite for quality storytelling and lent itself to the spread of false or misleading information. Adding to journalism’s challenges has been a half-decade long assault on “mainstream media” by President Trump and his followers over the last four years with chants of “fake news” and televised personal attacks aimed at the press corps and otherwise respected reporters.

When newspapers were at their prime, they were regarded as the gold standard of journalism and the primary source of news for reliable reporting and credible information.

Sam Woolley, a researcher and professor of journalism at The University of Texas, said before the advent of the Internet and the rise of social media, there were a handful of credible news stations and well-respected newspapers where audiences went to stay informed and get quality, objective reporting.

Now, the media industry is inundated with content available at everyone’s fingertips all hours of the day. Many consumers seek news and information that confirms their beliefs, whether or not it is true or accurate.

Joe Levin, a senior journalism student at The University of Texas, said he experienced first-hand the power that social media has in shaping public opinion, when he caught himself relying on Twitter to tell him how to feel about an issue after he saw a headline in the news.

 “My first thought was, ‘Huh, I wonder what I’m supposed to think about this?’” Levin said. “I went on Twitter and looked it up to see what everyone was saying. I thought, ‘Okay that’s what I’m supposed to think about it.’ I deleted Twitter for a long time after that because it freaked me out that I was even thinking that way.”

Levin said the nature of social media, fueled by algorithms, likes, re-posts and engagement rates, creates a “groupthink” environment where journalists are after a soundbite or short clip that will succeed on Twitter, often including what they think others will agree with or want them to say.

“I think the question that journalists have to answer right now is whether or not there’s any audience for truth telling and not just giving people what they want to hear,” Levin said.

Jay Root, an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle said he has never been more convinced about the need for objective, fact-based and transparent journalism.

“I would say there are some people in the mainstream media, who have let their own feelings get the best of them,” Root said.

While it is natural and acceptable to have a personal opinion, he said as a journalist you shouldn’t let that opinion affect your coverage.

Root believes the institution of journalism needs to be a check on power, which can be achieved through more transparency.

“I show my work and share with my readers how I got the story,” Root said, urging journalists to be more transparent about their work moving forward. “Show the documents, reveal the calls that you made and then hold yourself open to scrutiny. If somebody says, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ You should be able to have some answer to that.”

Robert Quigley, former Internet editor at the Austin American-Statesman and a journalism professor at The University of Texas, said accountability journalism is needed in a way it has never been needed before.

He said the challenge to modern journalism lies with the rise of new forms of media. People get their information from so many different places without regard for journalistic standards.

“Social media inherently is not bad, it’s what you decide to read, like, consume and engage with on those social media platforms,” Quigley said.

For example, he suggests users vet information before they reshare posts and tweets and only follow news organizations that are verifiable and trustworthy.

Quigley said journalism’s mission is the same, to disseminate information and develop an informed citizenry, which is vital to democracy because we can’t rely on elected officials or businesses to share information when there is no obligation or interest for them to be transparent.

Woolley studies computational propaganda, which is the use of social media in attempts to manipulate public opinion. He studies how political groups use sites such as Facebook, Twitter or TikTok to try to mold the way people, think, vote or participate in civic life.

“We’ve gone through this shift where in the early 2000s we had this perception that social media was going to be the salvation of democracy because it allowed everyone to access all this information,” Woolley said. “What we’ve realized through a lot of this research is that social media is just another media tool and that means that it can be manipulated by powerful folks in order to try to get regular people to do what they want.”

Since Woolley and his colleagues started doing this research there has been a corresponding emergence of disinformation journalists, who cover the spread of disinformation and manipulation online.

Disinformation is defined as deliberately misleading or biased information, using a manipulated narrative or facts, often considered to be propaganda. In contrast, misinformation is “false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead.”

“Now, journalists are on the frontlines of the fight against propaganda and disinformation in a way they’ve never been before,” Wooley said.

Woolley cites a declining trust in institutions over the last 30 years as a worrying problem that corresponds to the rise in new technology that makes it possible for everyone to be a “journalist” or creator, but also a propagandist and a manipulator.

While journalists have typically been on the frontlines of this issue, he believes journalistic institutions need to be more creative in how they combat disinformation.

“We can’t just keep passively fact checking people, because a lot of the time it makes people double down on their beliefs,” Woolley said. “We have to figure out how to bring people in and build community before we start telling them they’re right or wrong.”

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been a recent topic of debate, primarily at President Donald Trump’s behest to get rid of the piece of legislation that provides immunity to “interactive computer services” from legal action over what their users post.

Critics of the law say it allows big technology firms, like Facebook and Twitter, to abuse their power to censor users through political bias or a particular editorial angle.

Root said many people don’t believe the “mainstream media,” which is frustrating to him as a journalist because outlets, such as the Houston Chronicle, have methods for vetting information, verifying with sources and seeking approval from editors.

As an example, Root cites conspiracy theories. Before the internet and social media, conspiracy theories were unable to gain traction in the way they do now because any information or tip that was deemed unverifiable wouldn’t make it past the pitch meeting.

This allows social media outlets and niche websites to harbor information that is not reputable on platforms that are not responsible or legally liable to regulate or review content.

“We might think it’s slanted one way now, but it can be slanted another way tomorrow,” Root said. “It’s not about what political party would benefit from it. It’s about how the whole structure of the media now is unable to prevent misinformation from gaining widespread acceptance and currency in the United States of America… I do think it’s going to boil down to how Section 230 is handled.”

Christian McDonald, a former data editor at the American-Statesman and a journalism professor at The University of Texas with a focus on data and coding has seen a push to hire data journalists in the past 18 months.

Data is driving stories more than ever and has been seen more in the last eight to nine months with COVID than it has with a lot of other events in the past. McDonald said the current trend in data journalism is a concept or story that is supported by data, where the reader is shown the data along with a blurb about what it means to give context.

McDonald said using data science techniques in general news reporting gives journalists the ability to publish their code and method for reaching their conclusions.

“I preach that in my class in a sense that it brings authenticity and authority to your reporting when you can back that up with the data… That is a fight against ‘#fakenews,’”

McDonald said he believes that unbiased journalism still relies on the person who is doing the writing in the sense that data can only do so much.

Levin said the idea that there is one “right” opinion to have, especially among editorial or opinion journalism, is outrageous and dangerous to journalism.

“If you get to a point with commentary, not even that it’s just one sided, but where you can’t have an original thought, is horrible,” Levin said.

He thinks social media has increased every reporter’s bias tenfold because of the groupthink that happens on technology sites. He said that now it isn’t just one journalist’s bias showing through the story, but a collective bias of the entire profession of journalism.

“It leads to where you’re able to say, ‘All the people in the news media are conspiring together,” Levin said.

Opinion pieces need to be more clearly marked, Root said, because the average person doesn’t realize there is a huge difference between an opinion columnist and a reporter.

“That way you could go, ‘Okay well you’re giving me your slant on this and that’s fine because I know it’s your slant,” Root said. “Maybe I agree with your slant or maybe I don’t, but I know it’s your slant.’ (Journalists) don’t want to become easy prey for someone to say that you’re biased and then question your credibility because really, your credibility is so important as a journalist and once you lose it you can’t get it back.”

Journalism has been under siege for decades, but the increasing prevalence and influence of social media has put the industry’s future at the forefront of its fight to keep an audience’s attention in an oversaturated landscape of content.

“Because there is a very real risk in the era of social media that we just continue going more and more towards the soundbite and the hot take, rather than actually doing substantive journalism,” Woolley said. “We’ve got to figure out how to both keep people’s attention but also produce quality news.”