How to Sift Reliable News from the Cacophony
C. W. Anderson and Michael Schudson, with Leonard Downie, analyze news media in their book The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know. They consider the past, present and future of journalism, objectivity, digital technology, transparency, social media, current challenges for journalism, and who’s who. Anderson and Schudson, who participated in the 2014 experts meeting “The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered: Cultural Power” gave us this interview…
Telling your readers that this book will encapsulate “what everyone needs to know” about the news media sounds like a bold promise… What is the book actually about?
We chose to take the book’s title as a provocation and a challenge. It seems to us that one of the problems with journalism and journalism research today is that everyone feels that they don’t know anything, and everything we used to know is now out of date because of digital technology. As scholars, we’re temperamentally inclined to push back against this, to argue that no, actually, there is still a lot about the news media we do know, not everything has changed, and that we even know a lot about digital journalism. Scholars have, after all, been researching it for more than 15 years!
Why did you use a “question and answer” format?
We ask ourselves about 30 questions per section, and then answer them, drawing on the most current and important news media research. So this comes to about 90 questions in total. It’s sort of like a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) in book form. We found that a really appealing format, in part because we think it connects with the way people engage with new information these days, and in part because this book can be read “out of order” as it were. It also means the book can serve as a classroom textbook if people want to use it that way, but a textbook of a rather different kind than the types we normally see in the classroom.
The book is divided into past, present and future sections. What do you think the big-takeaways are from the past section?
We can highlight two points. First, most people – including most journalists themselves – don’t really know much about journalism’s history and a large chunk of what they think they know is wrong. So part of what this first section does is to put pins in balloons of commonplace understandings. Second, vital as it is to know that the US press has been largely a commercial press over the past several centuries, its commercialization has gone hand in hand with its professionalization, and the importance of the latter development is often overlooked. But the growing economic success of the newspapers from the late 19th century on enabled publishers to hire lots of reporters, indeed, forced them to do so to compete with rival newspapers, and the reporters came to adopt new tools for reporting and writing like interviewing, new codes of ethics, and new pride in fair and objective news reporting, even, sometimes, when that stepped on the toes of their own publishers.
And how about the present?
We explain how rapidly and profoundly news and the news media are changing – for better and worse. News is now everywhere, and everyone with a digital device can access and contribute to it. Too much of what appears to be news now is not reliable or even fact, but credible news media still matter and can take advantage of the digital revolution by growing audiences online and innovating the gathering and presentation of news. Some newspapers are transforming themselves into multiplatform digital news organizations with much larger digital than print audiences. Television networks and stations are broadcasting and digitally offering more news.
However, the deterioration of the advertising-based businesses of most of these news organizations has shrunk their reporting staffs, particularly at newspapers, making it more difficult to produce vital journalism that holds accountable those with power in society. Non-profit digital news organizations have sprung up to try to fill this need, although their largely philanthropic support is fragile and unpredictable. As digital audiences continue to fragment, advocacy news on cable networks, websites and blogs grows in influence. Other digital sites attract large audiences with “click-bait” fluff and worse. Social media pass around news both verifiable and false.
Except for primarily listener-supported public radio news, public broadcasting is less a factor in the United States than in many other western countries because government contributes so little money to it. Significantly, many of these different kinds of news organizations are now collaborating with each other on such meaningful and labor-intensive journalism as investigative reporting to stretch their limited resources. All this has left the news media embattled against big government, corporations and other institutions that expend more resources to gather and control information and even to produce their own versions of news and news-like advertising. Citizens are left to sort out reliable news from the cacophony with, we hope, assistance from this book.
And what do you consider the most important part of the section on the future?
The future is the hardest of course, and is the only part of the book that can actually be proven “wrong”! So it was a risky choice to talk about the future of news. We think it’s possible that, as time goes by, people will start to notice the things that we didn’t talk about. For instance- “fake news.” We think it’s actually pretty amazing how quickly a core concept from the communications literature has assumed such a prominent role in our popular conversations about politics.
But there is just one problem- we don’t have anything about “fake news” in the book! You can look in the index and it isn’t there. So people might look at the book and say, well, how could they miss that - it is clearly out of date already! But that gets at the most important aspect in the “future” section. Because you could also make the argument that “fake news” is really just an aspect of other, larger digital media trends. The platformization of news, for instance, or filter bubbles, or the long history of propaganda. And all those we do talk about in the book.
So I guess the big takeaway for the future section is that we can speculate about the future of news with a reasonable chance of success if we stay focused on the underlying, long-term trends rather than just on the “journalistic crisis of the month.” We know a lot about digital journalism, and we can use what we know to talk about what’s coming, but we have to keep our eye on the ball.
Do you have any final thoughts on how this book might help us understand the recent presidential election? The media played a big role in the outcome, after all …
It did for sure. And of course, there isn’t anything in here that directly relates to the 2016 election. But we think it can speak to the election in all sorts of ways. Just to name one example, let's read this article. We talk a bit about fact-checking in the book, and how it ties in to potentially shifting conceptions of journalistic objectivity. And of course fact-checking was widely embraced by a lot of media organizations in the run up to November 8th. What’s interesting now, of course, is that the question we asked in the linked article above—“how does an avowedly nonpartisan news organization like the New York Times cover an outrageous but media-savvy and factuality-challenged candidate like Donald Trump?”—has become a question we are all going to need to wrestle with for at least the next four years, if not longer.