5 ways to navigate journalism in the age of rage

By Karin Pettersson

Aftonbladet

Stockholm, Sweden

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The news media industry has long lamented the broken business models that followed the digital revolution. Today, 70% of digital advertising money goes to Facebook and Google, and media companies are struggling to reinvent themselves through digital subscriptions.

But the disruption hasn’t only affected advertising. It has also fundamentally changed and challenged journalism itself.

Historically, journalism has played a central role in shaping public discourse. News organisations have served as gatekeepers and chosen what to amplify. They have always been good at catching the audience’s attention and driving engagement.

Journalists working in today's hostile news media environment need to avoid getting sucked into Twitter and set their sights on big technology.
Journalists working in today's hostile news media environment need to avoid getting sucked into Twitter and set their sights on big technology.

It has, however, also been about ethics and purpose. But the new public sphere has a different logic than the old. Today, journalism is just one of many actors providing information on what is going on in the world. It exists as one of many content providers in an ecosystem where lies travel faster than the truth. That optimises anger, fear, and strong emotions.

In this new world, journalism needs to change, and journalists need to learn about the landscape and avoid the pitfalls. If we don’t, journalism risks becoming a mirror to the anger-driven social media culture instead of a counterweight on the side of truth and reason.

Given these new challenges, here are five lessons for journalism in the age of rage.

1. Don’t get your news, angles, or sources from Twitter.

Compared to the bigger social media platforms, Twitter is a small shop. But in the news ecosystem it is hugely important, and, unfortunately, often in a destructive way.

Journalists, politicians, and pundits are overrepresented on the platform, and so are propagandists and manipulators. Still, many journalists spend a disproportionate amount of time on Twitter looking for angles and topics. Since the platform is easy to manipulate for anyone with access to money or a network of bots, this makes them easy targets for manipulation.

Twitter also distorts journalism in more subtle ways. Journalists love engagement. Due to the platform’s nature, the content journalists get the strongest reactions to on Twitter tends to be variations on the big topic of the day — the stories that everyone is already covering. When journalists spend too much time on Twitter, this can lead to a dumbing down of coverage in a time when what we need is independent, thoughtful journalism looking for the untold stories.

2. Don’t be a useful idiot.

Social media tools were built to connect people and give them an opportunity for expression. As American tech journalist and thinker danah boyd wrote, it was never the plan that these “tools of amplification would be weaponised to radicalise people towards extremism, gaslight publics, or serve as vehicles of cruel harassment.”

That is, however, what has happened. The hard part for journalists is avoiding becoming useful idiots playing into the hands of those using the platforms to amplify their agenda. To do that, journalists need to understand how manipulation works on social media.

Boyd uses the example of the anti-Islam pastor Terry Jones, who in 2010 began using social media to publicly threaten to burn the Quran. His goal was to attract the attention of mainstream news media to promote his congregation, which had around 50 members.

Finally, a network of bloggers started to write about him.

Finally, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement condemning him, which led to a massive media coverage.

When he finally burned the Quran, the event was covered by every news outlet. The incident led to riots in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of 12 people.

The question is: Was it necessary and important to cover this spectacle? Should the media report on racist provocations from marginal political figures?

3. Differentiate between political attacks versus relevant media critiques.

The architecture of the new public sphere makes life harder for journalists. But is also makes their job more important than before. It’s harder because they can’t single-handedly set the agenda but also because the undermining of journalism is a central part of the political programme of many right-wing populist parties currently on the rise.

The attacks on journalism from Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Victor Orbán in Hungary are not isolated events. They are part of pattern. The undermining of the free press is at the centre of the political agenda for authoritarians across the globe.

It is a difficult balancing act: We must be aware that journalism is under attack and while also staying open to justified criticism.

4. Provide better coverage of Big Tech.

The rise of big tech is one of our generation’s most important stories. Facebook has more than 2.3 billion monthly users, and 1.8 billion people logged on to YouTube last year. The majority of Americans get their news from social media, and the same is true of most European countries. Never in the history of humankind have companies existed with such reach and impact on information and human communication.

These new global superpowers need to be scrutinised and reported on, not only from the “tech” angle. Their operations affect democracy, innovation, and politics. Coverage needs to reflect that.

5. Get used to the hatred.

Journalists that learned the trade in the old days are not used to the hatred, criticism, threats, and aggression directed toward them that flourishes on social media and elsewhere today. Since many of the attacks are politically motivated, it is unrealistic to believe they will simply go away. Instead, journalism needs to learn how to thrive and stay focused in this new environment.

Individually, journalists need to find the strength and motivation to go on, without retreating or becoming overly defensive. On an organisational level, editors and journalists need to learn how to deal with the stress and psychological pressure that follows, and media organisations should set up smart and efficient security routines for their employees if they haven’t already.

The attacks are, in a way, a testimony to the importance of the work journalists are doing. (I don’t know how much that helps, though.)

Good journalism has never been as important as it is right now, and it has never been as hard. Journalism can and will survive. But it needs to learn how to navigate in a new environment.

About Karin Pettersson

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