The 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report is out now. I’m so proud to be part of this teamwork. We cover 46 markets that account for more than half of world’s population, including six new countries in the Global South.
The report is always a flagship for us, and the further international expansion is a big step for us, and I think it is important.
As I write in my foreword,
“We are particularly proud to be able to include more countries in the Global South, primarily because we hope the data and analysis we present are useful for journalists, editors, and media executives there, but also because we strongly believe their colleagues elsewhere can learn a lot from the situation in countries where news media have long faced political attacks, financial precarity, and internet users heavily oriented towards mobile and social media – some of the realities journalists in historically more privileged parts of the world increasingly have to deal with.”
The report is available as HTML, in PDF, and there are more resources including a massive 192 slide deck. All of it meant to be used.
The moment we press “publish” is not the end for us, it’s just the start of the next stage, the conversation with journalists, editors, media executives, policymakers, and academics across the world who engage with our work.
Follow some of that conversation on Twitter where we are using the hashtag #DNR21, at the various discussions of the report at launch events across the world, or read some of the country reports our amazing country partners have published.
In this post just five highlights from me.
FIRST, trust in the news has grown.
Across 46 markets, 44% say they trust most news most of the time, up, on average, by six percentage points in wake of Coronavirus pandemic (back to 2018-levels).
No similar growth for trust in news seen on e.g. social media means that the “trust gap” with platforms has grown.
SECOND, trusted brands have often done better in terms of increased online audience reach.
Most news media saw a surge in audience during pandemic and lockdowns, but news fatigue is also setting in and the surge is in many cases levelling off – who can they retain increased reach as the situation evolve?
We looked at how many brands have a significantly higher reach in early 2021 than early 2020, and find more trusted brands have often done better.
THIRD, distributed discovery is growing ever more important.
The pandemic has accelerated the move to more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.
And despite trust gap and concerns over misinformation, various platforms continue to grow in importance for news discovery.
Just 25% of our respondents say going direct to a news site or app is their main way to access online news.
FOURTH, platform ecology growing more complex, especially among younger users
As Facebook, while still important, is less used for news, a slew of other platforms are growing in importance, especially among younger people.
This is a promising but also tricky space for news publishers in many ways – for example, on growing networks such as TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, influencers and alternative sources seem to command more attention than mainstream media and journalists.
FIFTH, the business of news remains winner-takes-most
There is some increase in payment for online news in a few rich countries, but the overall percentage of people paying remains low.
And in most countries a large proportion of digital subscriptions go to just a few big national brands, reinforcing winner-takes-most dynamics. Only in Norway do we see a large number saying they subscribe to local news online, and only in the US is the median number of digital news subscriptions now 2 (often a big national plus either a niche supplement (sports, opinion, etc.) or a local one, very rarely both).
Thus, while platform companies and some, often big, publishers are doing well, many commercial news media are struggling.
Those are just five highlights from me.
It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Nic Newman, Richard Fletcher, Anne Schulz, Simge Andi, and Craig Robertson on the analysis and writing, with invaluable input from our amazing country partners, support from the whole Reuters Institute team, and backing from 16 different funders.
It takes a village and I’m so happy to be part of this particular one.
Finally, if you like the Digital News Report – and the institute’s work more broadly – please consider giving a donation to our Journalists Under Pressure Fund. It helps journalists operating in difficult conditions join our fellowship program. Click here to donate.
Do we need a “New Deal” for journalism, a concerted set of policies and commitment of resources to secure an enabling environment for the freedom, funding, and future independent professional news reporting need to do its important job today and tomorrow?
I recommend reading the whole report, written for the Forum by Sameer Padania and a team of rapporteurs, based on desk research, tons of interviews, various submissions, and input from the working group.
My foreword is pasted below in case of interest, and I have summarized key points in this Twitter thread.
TL;DR – (1) Independent journalism is facing serious challenges around sustainability (as well as media freedom), especially at the local level and in terms of historically underserved and marginalized communities. Journalists and the news industry are leading on finding ways ahead on sustainability but (2) policymakers can help create a more enabling environment, if they are willing to move beyond talk and commit real resources, (3) whether we do this is a political choice, not a policy conundrum – blue sky thinking and new ideas are always welcome, but let’s not forget we have a number of existing policy options with proof of concept. Ignoring them is a bit like trying to combat climate change solely by risky bets on, say, geoengineering while ignoring the panoply of tools we already know can make a difference if we choose to use them. We should judge policymakers on their actions more than fine declarations, nice speeches, or lavish conferences, and always remember that inaction is a choice too.
My foreword below.
Less talk, more action?
“Quality, clear, and truthful information is essential for a democratic society based on the values of honesty and respect, fairness and justice, freedom and dignity.”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeausaid on World Press Freedom day this year, thanking journalists everywhere who “give us the facts to make better sense of the world, contribute to our communities, and lead freer, richer lives.”
This is more than just words. While journalism is imperfect, and sometimes problematic, years of research has documented how independent, professional journalism helps people stay informed, take part in political processes, and engage with their local communities, just as it can help hold power to account and reduce corruption and malfeasance in both the public and the private sector.
But journalism’s ability to do this is threatened on several fronts today, by powerful people all over the world waging war on journalism as media freedom erodes, and by the inexorable decline of the traditional business of news as people abandon print and broadcast in favour digital media and platforms, a challenge sometimes compounded by journalism’s unwillingness to reckon with its own shortcomings or adapt to a changing world.
If governments want to do more than talk about the value of journalism, and actually help the journalists and news media who are leading on forging new ways forward for the profession and the industry, they will need to step up and take real action.
Whether this is a priority is for the public and its elected officials to decide, but one thing is clear. Speeches alone will do little to help journalists. They need action, and the reality is that, at best, most governments have done little or nothing.
What can governments do? One place to start is with existing policies that have proof of concept, command broad-based support in the countries where they are in place, and are oriented towards the future of journalism. Blue-sky thinking is always welcome, but it should not distract us from proven tools already at hand. This report identifies a range of the most important steps governments could take – right now – to help ensure the freedom, funding, and future that journalists need to do their job. None of them are perfect, but all of them are practical, and all can be structured so they avoid simply privileging incumbents or lining the pockets of proprietors and shareholders.
They include, perhaps most importantly—
Supporting private sector news media through indirect forms of support such as tax exemptions, direct support specifically tied to investment in professional journalism and structured to prioritize local media and media serving minorities, and supporting innovation, without tying these forms of support to increasingly marginal forms of distribution like print, is one option, as demonstrated in Denmark.
Supporting public service media with a clear remit and ability to serve the public across all media, not just broadcasting, strong insulation from political pressure to ensure their editorial independence from government, sufficient funding to deliver on their mission, and a clear focus on serving those communities least well served by private sector media is a second option, as demonstrated in the United Kingdom.
Supporting the creation of non-profit news media by easing the creation of journalistic non-profit organizations, whether from scratch or by converting legacy titles, and creating incentives for both individuals and foundations to support non-profit news media, is a third option, and non-profit media are already making important contribution in some countries.
Supporting independent news media globally by committing at least some Official Development Assistance to journalism in other countries is a fourth option, whether done bilaterally or through joint vehicles. We can all benefit from stronger journalism, not just at home, but also abroad – if anyone need a reminder that our futures are tied together in an age defined by the climate emergency and intertwined economies, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided it.
None of these policies are silver bullets, but they can all make a difference for the better, as long as they are deployed within a framework of fundamental rights and respect for free expression and media freedom (otherwise they can quickly turn into instruments for state capture).
They all also come with proof of concept, and avoid the uncertainty of betting on opaque arrangements that can entrench dominant players and risk primarily benefiting a few large publishers who are often already doing relatively well.
All these policies, and more reviewed in the report, can offer inspiration for governments who are serious about supporting independent journalists and news media as they carve out a new sustainable future for themselves. They offer a chance to break with years of inaction, and an opportunity to reform inherited arrangements tied to waning media like print or broadcast.
A few countries already have some of these policies in place, many countries at least a few of them, but no country has done all it can to help ensure journalists can continue to do their indispensable work, so central to the functioning of democracy. The United States, for example, has long been an outlier among democracies in terms of how little it does to actually support independent news media, and of course also illustrate the vitriol with which some politicians attack news media who seek truth and report it. President Biden has at least changed the tone. But will he and other political leaders around the globe who recognize the real public value of journalism take more tangible steps news reporting at home and abroad?
If governments are seriously committed to creating an enabling environment for independent professional journalism, they will commit real resources. Journalists – and the public they serve – don’t need comforting speeches. They need concrete steps. This report identifies some of what can be done. Now it is up to elected officials and the public to decide if they want less talk, and more action.
Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and chair of the working group on the Forum on Information and Democracy Working Group on Sustainability of Journalism.
I have been asked to speak abut foreign interference and disinformation, what research tells us about the challenges they represent and the context they happen in, and how we might respond.
Foreign interference here includes information operations specifically, but it’s important to remember these are a subset of a wider range of soft power, public diplomacy, publicity, and communications operations.
Disinformation, in line with the EU Commission action plan, I take to mean “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm” and that is almost always legal speech.
So where are we with foreign interference and disinformation? We need to understand the challenges we face and the context they exist in if we are to address them in credible and effective ways.
Let’s take the challenge first – foreign interference often aims to increase divisions in our societies, undermine trust in institutions, and on that basis influence individual and collective decision making.
Disinformation is only one way in which foreign governments try to achieve these aims – as said, soft power, public diplomacy, publicity, and communications operations are often deployed for the same purposes, and some of these in part work via domestic actors, wittingly or unwittingly.
And, crucially, many other factors are far, far more important in shaping divisions in our societies, trust in institutions, and individual and collective decision making than disinformation (let alone disinformation from foreign interference narrowly).
We face real and serious problems with disinformation, but as with any societal problem, we need to understand the scale and scope and the way the public thinks about it if we want to respond in effective and credible ways.
We don’t always have evidence and research on these issues that is up to date or that capture differences from country to country, but research from the United States (which has had severe problems with disinformation in recent years) can give a sense of the scale and scope, and our own research from the Reuters Institute how the public sees these problems—
First, on scale and scope, in the United States, one team of researchers found that across offline and online media use, “news consumption [comprises] 14.2% of Americans’ daily media diets” whereas “fake news comprises only 0.15% of Americans’ daily media diet.” – with time spent with news outweighing fake news, highly biased, and hyper-partisan sites by a factor of almost 100.
Looking specifically at Twitter, which may give at least an indication of dynamics on far larger platforms such as Facebook and YouTube where it is harder for researchers to access data, another team found that “fake news accounted for nearly 6% of all news consumption, but it was heavily concentrated—only 1% of users were exposed to 80% of fake news, and 0.1% of users were responsible for sharing 80% of fake news.”
There are wider issues than “f*ke news” as narrowly defined in these studies, including dangerous narratives that aren’t necessarily tightly tied to discrete checkable claims or specific sites, networked propaganda from specific constellations of political actors and partisan media, and problematic information including various kinds of hyper-partisan material, harassment, and trolling – often targeted at women, ethnic minorities, and marginalized communities.
But this research suggests that, while very real and serious, the scale and scope of identified mis- and disinformation narrowly conceived and measured is more limited and more concentrated in highly partisan subcommunities than is sometimes imagined.
Second, on how the public sees these problems, in the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report, we ask nationally representative samples of internet news users in 40 markets across the world a range of questions, including last year what source they are most concerned about false or misleading information from online. Looking at the 20 EU member states we cover in the report, 11% respond “foreign governments”. By comparison, 12% respond “journalists or news organizations”. And – I’m sorry if it is awkward to mention this in this setting – 38% say “The government, politicians or political parties in my country”.
This finding is important for two reasons.
First because, as with any social problem, public perception will influence the effectiveness and especially the credibility of any responses, and when it comes to disinformation, a large plurality of the public is more concerned about false or misleading information from domestic politicians or domestic news media than from foreign governments.
Second, and again – apologies if this is inconvenient and even rude – I’d say social science research largely suggest the public is often right to be more concerned about domestic sources of false or misleading information.
I think these research findings leave us in a place where we must recognize two things –
First, if the goal of foreign interference is, among other things, to undermine trust in institutions, there is a risk that our very own public conversation about disinformation help outside actors achieve this goal if we exaggerate the (very real) challenges we face. (This, of course, is also why the Russian opposition has for years encouraged Western liberals not to exaggerate the effect of the Kremlin’s information operations.)
Second, if the goal of foreign interference is, among other things, to undermine trust in institutions, but much of the public see problems of disinformation as being about domestic politicians and media spreading false and misleading information about them, I think there is a risk that attempts to counter disinformation that are narrowly aimed at foreign interference specifically and does nothing to address what much of the public see as the main problems may come across to some of the public as self-serving attempts by governments and established elites to protect themselves by censoring outside sources of information and stifling criticism.
So, what can we do, other than taking problems seriously without exaggerating them in ways that spread the fear foreign actors seek to spread, and other than not pursuing responses that may seem so selectively partial as to be self-serving in ways that in themselves may contribute to undermining trust in institutions?
I will not talk about technology and technology companies, because Anna Bulakh and Alex Stamos will focus on this, other than to say that (a) there are clearly a range of tactical technical interventions that can help (labeling, context, introduction of friction, provision of authoritative information, in some cases reduction or removal of content, provision of data and tools to independent third parties) and (b) that our research documents that the public clearly – and in my view rightly – sees technology companies, especially Facebook and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, but also to a lesser extend search, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube, as part of these problems, and will expect them to be part of the solutions.
All of these tactical and technical interventions can help make a difference, but at a more fundamental level, if what we want to prevent is that disinformation from foreign interference increases divisions and undermines trust in institutions, if we remember that much disinformation is legal speech protected by the fundamental right to receive and impart information, and that narrow direct interventions targeted exclusively at foreign actors may exacerbate these problems because they might look self-serving to a public that sees domestic actors as central to disinformation problems (a view that is well supported by research), then indirect interventions focused on building resilience might be the best response available.
Building resilience would involve investing in strengthening the independent institutions that help people be informed, connect with others, and work together, including –
Independent news media, both private sector, public service, and non-profit (some policy options here)
Independent research, ideally with better access to data from both platforms and public authorities
Independent media literacy programs (for all ages)
And indeed, the 2018 report of the European Commission High Level Group on Online Disinformation recommended, among other things, exactly such investments, calling for the European Union, with its annual budget of well over €160 billion, to commit at least €100 million in funding for independent initiatives (in a context where several foreign governments are estimated to be spending €1 billion or more a year on their own state media and influence operations).
That has not happened in the three years since.
But the recommendations still stand.
It is tempting to imagine that there are simple, cheap, and uncontroversial solutions to the very real and serious disinformation problems that we face. But there aren’t. There are only complicated, often expensive, and sometimes controversial options.
Research can help provide an understanding of the challenges we face and inform the decisions we make. But fundamentally, this is about choices and priorities.
You, and your counterparts at the member state level, are the ones who have a democratic mandate to make them.
Today I gave a short presentation to the Irish Future of Media Commission. I had 6 minutes to speak about policy options for public interest content, and given what I do, I naturally focused on news – independent professional journalism.
There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around, and given the constraints the below is obviously not comprehensive or exhaustive, the ideas aren’t always appropriate in every context (in countries where the government does not respect free expression and/or try to capture the media public policy often does more harm than good to independent professional journalism), and they don’t speak to some of the wider issues, including competition, that I have written about elsewhere – but perhaps still interesting and useful in summarizing some specific, concrete options.
I think there sometimes is a risk that actually existing policies with proof of concept and in many cases a demonstrated positive effect get lost in the scrum or the tendency to always chase novelties. Just as we don’t always need to chase the latest shiny thing in digital journalism (Blockchain! Chatbots! VR!) or futuristic speculation about hyperloops, passenger drones or self-driving cars if sorting out existing public transport and bike lanes could get the job done, we don’t always need moon-shots for terrestrial shortcomings in media policy.
There are things that we know we can do and that we know can make a difference. It makes no sense to throw up our collective arms and cry ‘what-oh-what-can-we-do’ when there are clear options, and while interesting and sometimes promising, it is not always necessary to start from scratch and develop entirely new policies that in any case will face uncertain politics ahead and sometimes risk negative or unintended consequences.
I’m all for blue sky thinking, but that should not distract us from the actually existing options we have. They have limitations, of course, they may not have the public and political support they need to work, and they are not free, few things are. But let’s be clear. In Denmark, 0.03% of expected 2021 government expenditure will go to direct financial support for independent news media (DKK 358m). In New Zealand, the new Journalism Fund will receive about 0.01% of government expenditure in 2020/2021 (NZ$10m). Other governments could make a similar commitment. If the US committed 0.01% of total government expenditure to direct financial support for independent news media, that would amount to billions of dollars. It’s a choice, not an conundrum.
It is up to the public and to elected politicians who represent them to decide whether such arrangements or other options are appropriate and desirable, and strike the balance between doing something and doing something that can command broad enough backing to provide legitimate and reliable support for independent professional journalism. But the main issue right now in my view is not lack of options. It is the lack of action.
Anyways – my manuscript below, with links added for underlying evidence.
Remarks at the Irish Future of Media Commission dialogue Friday 19 March on media funding and regulation.
Policymakers can take a number of steps to make such businesses more likely to invest in independent professional journalism.
They can also take a number of steps to supplement what private businesses do.
I will point to seven options.
In terms of increasing private businesses’ investment in news, the four main options that have proof of concept and/or are likely to have limited negative or unintended consequences I think are
First, direct subsidies for private news media, as deployed in for example Denmark with a system designed to prioritize supporting local publishers and smaller publishers to enhance diversity and ensure geographic spread, without creating any openings for politicians or bureaucrats to meddle with editorial. The sums involved are big enough to make a difference, but small enough to avoid over-reliance on public funds. (The scheme has also been praised by the European Commission as fully compliant with State Aid rules.)
Second, indirect subsidies for private news media, deployed in many countries, such as VAT reductions and where most generous, exemptions. Where rationally designed, these are equally applicable to offline and online news. They are increasingly important as subscriptions are more and more central to the business of digital news, and again, represent a form of support without any openings for political meddling in editorial.
Third, systemic support, as suggested in the UK Cairncross Review, to underwrite the costs of things that are relevant across the profession of journalism and for the news industry as a whole, without being tied to individual private publishers, such as funds made available for training of editorial staff who need new skills, or industry-relevant applied research.
These four options are all primarily focused on independent professional journalism done by private publishers.
Looking beyond these, there are additional ways for policymakers to supplement independent professional journalism from private publishes. These are the next options on my list of seven.
Fifth, by far the most important is the creation and public funding of independent public service media, ideally with a remit to operate across platforms, and with secure public funding and little or no reliance on commercial revenues (to minimize the conflict that will necessarily exist between private sector and public service providers). Increasingly, in for example Finland, these are no longer funded by an often socially regressive licence fee tied to increasingly outmoded devices and waning forms of consumption, but by an earmarked media tax tied to income, structured and collected to maintain full independence. As long as the remit is clear, in the countries where I have seen independent research, there is little or no convincing evidence of the crowding out effect that private sector publishers often say they fear come with public service provision.
Sixth, easing the creation of non-profit news organizations – or the conversion of existing ones into non-profits – and the creation of relevant deductions and other incentives for supporting non-profit news media. So far much less important in terms of overall volume of investment, but significant and in many cases enabling very impressive forms of journalism, non-profit news plays an important role in the United States both through long-standing legacy media like NPR, PBS, and their local affiliates and new entrants like the Texas Tribune, with its local focus, or The 19th with its focus on gender, politics and policy.
Finally, policy makers can enable all sorts of independent professional journalism, whether for-profit, public service, or non-profit, by
Seventh, lowering the costs of doing investigative reporting, through ease of freedom of information access, more public data, the use of machine readable formats in place of cumbersome PDFs when public data is released and similar initiatives.
What these options have in common is that they are focused on enabling independent professional journalists to produce public interest content, not on propping up specific companies.
They all avoid reliance on hypothecated taxes with their many known drawbacks and problems.
They also avoid increasing news publishers’ reliance on large technology companies that they may have reservations about being too reliant on.
They often require funding, and I suspect citizens would be glad to see a greater tax contribution from large technology companies who in many cases generate vast amounts of revenue while paying little tax in individual jurisdictions.
However the funds are generated, it is important to recognize that, as a share of public expenditure, they are tiny even where these arrangements are most generous – we often spend far less public funds on supporting independent professional journalism than we do on supporting, say, agriculture or fossil fuels.
It is up to elected officials and the public to decide whether these options are appropriate and desirable, but it is important to recognize that, while not without limitations, these are actually existing policies that have proof of concept and in many cases a demonstrated positive effect.
It is a choice to implement them, just as it is a choice to not implement them.
Our aim in the sustainability group is to work for the next few months to collect data and evidence to formulate recommendations both in terms of good practice for for-profit and non-profit media, regulatory options, and non-market policies (like public service media or subsidies), all in the interest of ensuring an enabling environment for independent journalism and free media in different contexts across the world.
We have just issued our call for contributions with a deadline February 28, and look forward to receiving submissions over the next two months (I will work with the group, the rapporteurs, and the Forum’s secretariat to solicit input especially from those groups and voices rarely represented in industry and policy discussions).
At the first meeting of the working group this week, I outlined the principles I hope will inform our work as we work towards a report we aim to publish in May 2021.
First – our work should be oriented towards the future and not romanticize the past, or ignore the ambiguities and imperfections of existing journalism and news media.
Second – our work should be based on data and evidence that gives us confidence that any recommendations we make actually are good, and do not just feel good or look good.
Third – if we want to avoid contributing to a further politicization of journalism and independent news media by different political actors, and ensure a more stable environment, it is important to consider whether recommendations will command broad public and political support.
Fourth – we need to remember that we live in a time of democratic recession and increasing concentration of corporate power, and that any recommendations that increase journalism and independent news media’s reliance on ad-hoc political favors or opaque special deals with individual large companies may be a threat to editorial independence long-term, however favorable to the bottom line short-term.
If we want the recommendations to (a) work and (b) convince others that they work, it is not enough that someone somewhere believes in them, however passionately. This is important for journalists and independent news media – even where intentions are good, there is an opportunity cost to getting problems and remedies wrong. If people act on recommendations that are unsubstantiated and therefore won’t work, they risk ending up worse off. Evidence is also important if we want to influence policymakers and other relevant stakeholders that necessarily have many different considerations and are unlikely to be influenced by opinions alone, and for whom independent journalism is only one among many priorities (if a priority at all).
As a I said when we launched the group, quality news costs money and financial sustainability helps protect editorial independence. That’s why the sustainability of journalism is important for the whole public, not just those who work in the news media.
I look forward to working with the Forum on Information & Democracy and the members of the new working group on the sustainability of journalism to identify recommendations that can help us find ways to ensure continued provision of quality news from genuinely independent media in the future. To submit evidence in response to our call for contributions, please follow the instructions here.
The US Presidential Election is decided, even though Trump and his dwindling number of allies as predicted will continue to contest it, even if for example Fox News has long called it for Biden.
Both the popular vote and some state-level results are different from what many expected, including some social scientists and journalists who rely on various forms of social science-style work (polling etc.).
As a professional social scientist, I wanted to write a short note with some preliminary thoughts on what the outcome might mean for social science.
I wrote a similar note after the 2016 US election, and – perhaps a sign of my advanced age and calcified ways of thinking – was tempted to just post it again. The observation that “we don’t know how most people feel about politics and how it ties in with other aspects of their lives and identities” and that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world” I’d be happy to just reiterate.
But I’ll add a few more observations, both around social science, and its interface with journalism, and will look forward to others’ thoughts. (Read responses to this thread with lots of smart people engaging – much there that I won’t try to cover here, on forms of citizenship, popular forms of political communication and political expression, varieties of journalism, the more hands-on role of platforms this time, and much more.)
All politics is to some extent identity politics
First, on social science, I don’t think we can understand the 2020 election outcome without putting identity in center place, especially if we are to understand why many white Americans have responded favorably to Trump’s explicit racial appeals. Identity was central in 2016, and this year again I think.
Much pioneering work on voting, especially coming out of sociology (the “Columbia School”) did this already a half-century ago, with e.g. Bernard Berelson et al’s observation that voting has its origins “in ethnic, sectional, class, and family traditions” and is a matter of sentiment and disposition rather than “reasoned preferences”, an approach further develop in the “Michigan model” that put party identification at the center.
For decades, more rationalist models of “median voters”, assumptions about “informed citizens” and the like were in vogue in some quarters, models that have greater affinity with many journalists’ tendency to assume (or pretend) that voting is some form of political arithmetic where people collect information (or are exposed to misinformation), analyze it, arrive at a conclusion, and then act on it. (American political scientists, and perhaps American journalists, may have been more enthralled by this view – at least in my experience, it never seemed as prominent in other countries.)
But in recent years, identity has been back front and center of much impressive social science on American politics, though less frequently centered in the particular subset of social science-style work journalism and pundits often rely most on – polling done by polling companies and various kinds of independent analysts.
Take for example Identity Crisis, where John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck came to the conclusion that Trump’s victory in 2016 was foreshadowed by changes in the Democratic and Republican coalitions that were driven by people’s racial and ethnic identities, and by the Trump campaign actively exacerbating these divisions by hammering away on race, immigration, and religion. Similarly, Liliana Mason in Uncivil Agreement argues that political partisanship is increasingly mapped onto race and other social divisions and Ashley Jardina in White Identity Politics draws attention to, well, what the title suggests.
None of these analyses would leave one surprised that 2020 was not a Democratic landslide or that attempts to combat demonstrably factually wrong misinformation may not have done much to influence the result, as important as they are in other respects. All of these analyses suggest that tens of millions of predominantly white Americans voted for Trump because they support him and what he stands for, not because they were misinformed, uninformed, or intellectually incapable of processing the latest long investigative piece, scorching op-ed, or pithy tweet denouncing the President for his failings.
Other work underlines that we should not accept the (for some) comfortable illusion that white identity politics is narrowly tied to Trump and thus perhaps could be written off as an outlier. Carol Anderson in White Ragedocuments a century and a half of how social progress for African Americans has been countered time and again by deliberate and organized white opposition, just as Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos in Deeply Divided draws a line from contemporary America back to the Civil Rights struggle and the white backlash against it.
As my friend Daniel Kreiss, who has introduced me to much research on these issues, has pointed out, we have decades of important work by social scientists and historians documenting how a central theme in American politics both now and historically is whites’ power to determine who a citizen is and should be. That, not Trump, is at the root of rage-tweets like “STOP THE COUNT!” He is arguably a symptom of white identity politics, and, however aggressively and effectively he has pursued it, not its cause.
Social science and political journalism
Some journalists I think share this line of thinking. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in 2015, “All politics is, on some level, identity politics.” But more broadly, I think there is a big gap between how a significant number of social scientists analyze and understand politics as based in large part on identity, and how many journalists analyze, understand, and present politics.
Sometimes that gap is fine, even necessary. While they have some shared commitments and overlap, journalists are not social scientists, and social scientists not journalists.
But if journalists turn to social scientists and people like pollsters who do social science-style work as sources they rely on to provide evidence and insight into how politics works, and in turn present this to their readers as the best obtainable version of the truth, or at least as strong, credible predictions… then they might be better off turning to social scientists who do it well, just as presumably journalists would prefer using competent doctors and public health experts as sources for stories rather than people who demonstrably and repeatedly get things wrong, or who offer self-confident opinions dressed up as evidence?
One problem, of course, is that social scientists can’t always offer analysis and insight with the precision, timeliness, and certainty that we might like, and that journalists may seek.
I get it, that’s inconvenient and irritating. We all abhor information vacuums, often feel uneasy with uncertainty, especially faced with important events, and tend to, when no credible sources are available, improvise, rely on heuristics, and work with other sources.
But sometimes we don’t know exactly what will happen, where, when, and to the last decimal. That’s true for social science too – uncertainty is a defining feature of research science, as is organized skepticism (we are essentially a tribe united in challenging one another by constantly asking “how do you know?”). We know things. But we don’t know everything instantaneously.
What does that have to do with the relation between social science and journalism? I think it speaks to how journalists do and do not rely on social scientists, among other sources, as they work to make sense of the world in real-time and meet people’s demand for information.
Take this two-part observation from Margaret Sullivan, one of the most insightful observers on US journalism and media: “Polling seems to be irrevocably broken, or at least our understanding of how seriously to take it is.” ‘Polling is irrevocably broken’ and ‘our [journalists’] understanding of it is broken’ are two very different claims! Both could be true. And there is no question that we, again, need to examine much more closely the performance of different polls and how they were used. (Is polling broken? It absolutely has taken some big knocks, again, but still – predicting how more than 140 million people will vote within a few percentage points still beats tea leaves? And that some polling is broken does not mean that all polling is broken.) Sullivan’s second observation, that part of the problem here is the gap between social scientists and journalists (“our understanding”) is also important. As my colleague Ben Toff has shown, the way in which US journalists and news media use polls is at least in part driven by a growing interest in and reliance on polling aggregator websites fueled by many journalists’ demand for precise predictions which, when combined with sometimes limited expertise within newsrooms to adjudicate between surveys and a more competitive space with more and more polls published, can lead to news media offering readers what is fundamentally at best spurious precision and at worst outright misleading.
We see this side of the issue, many journalists’ demand for something akin to certainty most clearly with polls, but it is not limited to polls. Various news media have published electoral predictions based on everything from betting markets, Wall Street trading, to sentiment analysis of social media posts (as well as of course just self-confident men paid to have opinions). Social scientists, on the other hand, deal in uncertainty. As Andrew Gelman wrote after 2016, “There’s a theory that academics [are] petrified of making a mistake, hence we are overcautious in our predictions; in contrast, the media … reward boldness and are forgiving of failure.” Forgiveness I suppose is a virtue, only perhaps not without complications if the price for failure is paid by the public. Is it sometimes worth trying some new sources, even if they sometimes come across as less dazzlingly self-confident, acknowledge more uncertainty, and offer less precise predictions?
What does journalism treat as social science, and who do journalists recognize as social scientists?
That leads to questions around how journalism and social science intersect.
Number one, can more journalists and editors accept that social science and social science-style work cannot always provide certainty and precision? I know this is inconvenient for reporters with stories to file, and for data visualization teams with maps to draw and needles to move, but sometimes the best obtainable version of the truth is that we don’t know, or that we only now this, or roughly that, but not these other things. At its best, journalism accepts this when it comes to e.g. medical research and natural science. Not so much social science. At a personal level, it is an almost daily experience for me as a source to have to disappoint journalists by responding “I don’t know” to questions. Many of them then later turn to someone else with the same question, often of course people who actually know – but also just sources who simply seem willing to give a straight, certain, seemingly precise answer (especially consultants, lobbyists, think tanks, campaigners and the like, sometimes drawing in part on social science-like work). As Chris Anderson (another friend) suggest in his Apostles of Certainty, sometimes journalism perhaps need to convey more provisionality and uncertainty rather than risk spurious precision?
Number two, what gets to count as social science, and who gets to count as social scientists? Social science is quantitative, but it is also qualitative, and social science can be focused on the present, but also historical. I am originally a qualitative researcher myself, though with colleagues in recent years increasingly doing quantitative work focused on the present, but I continue to be concerned that the fuller, more nuanced, more robust – fundamentally more credible, convincing, more complete, can I even say, more true? – understanding of politics require qualitative and historical perspectives. I don’t have data at hand to back this up, but my impression is these types of social science are far less featured in political journalism. If it was recognized, perhaps it would be more clearly recognized in daily coverage how central identity and racial divisions are to US politics? Perhaps. (A further complication here is that analysis focused on identity politics, racial appeals, and racisms necessarily relies on a vocabulary that is both analytical and moral – calling Trump a racist on the basis of his campaign and his statements is an analytical conclusion, but also a moral judgement, and the latter may strike some journalists as partisan, no matter how well founded the former.) Similarly, in terms of who gets to count as social scientists, it is hard not to notice how many of the pollsters cited and sources used are white men (like me). There are many other outstanding social scientists, and initiatives like Women Also Know Stuff and People of Color Also Know Stuff are aimed at addressing precisely this problem by providing journalists with easy access to a wider range of expert sources.
We do social science, not because it is easy, but because it is hard
Finally, this stuff is not easy, neither the journalism nor the social science.
I am deeply conscious of how little we know, and that we often disagree on how to interpret, or even approach things. As I wrote after the 2016 election: “Science is hard. We are in the dark, poking at the world with different sticks.”
But I am also tremendously proud of social science at its best, including the work of the many colleagues I’ve cited above. In my view, we collectively produce far more robust and reliable knowledge about social life than most other professions do, and thought we do it slowly, often in obscure and in nearly unintelligible ways, and with many, many gaps, we do so from a more disinterested vantage point. That’s why I think we have something very distinct and valuable to bring to the rough process of public discussion, something I think it is important journalists recognize, and that scholars, especially those in privileged positions, should prioritize making available to the public.
Finally, did social science do a terrible job this year? Some of it, sure. We may not sound like it, but we are human too. Overall, I’m not sure. The unweighted average predicted Electoral College vote for Trump across seven forecasts published in advance of the election in PS: Political Science and Politics was 237. The final result, if Trump as projected wins North Carolina? 232.
Here are three values I think most journalists would like to base their work on.
1) Seek truth and report it
2) Work with moral clarity
3) Serve the whole public
I wonder whether journalism faces inescapable trilemma that may require tradeoffs between these different aspirations?
Is there a “journalists’ trilemma”, akin to the political trilemma for the world economy Dani Rodrik identified many years ago where we might want different things at the same time, but where they are sometimes mutually incompatible so we can never have all of them simultaneously and in full?
If so the journalists’ trilemma might look something like the below – and necessitate hard decisions about which of different values to prioritize, knowing that there are likely to be tradeoffs involved.
Recognizing there are irreducibly plural values does not entail relativism, simply recognizing sometimes we have to make choices between different things that are valuable in different and sometimes incommensurable ways and that we can’t always have everything. (Recognize this from your own life? I do.)
This is not an easy idea to accept.
It is attractive – even seductive – to imagine that different good things we might want can all be accomplished at the same time.
But can they?
Looking at the US right now, I find it hard to imagine how journalists can cover Trump with moral clarity while also reaching whole public (just as I think the ambition to cover the news while serving the whole public, often implicitly in practice assumed to be made up of white men, has in the past sometimes come at the expense of moral clarity).
“a hollowed-out shell devoid of ideas, values or integrity, committed solely to preserving its own power even at the expense of democratic norms, institutions and ideals.”
If that is so (and the Democratic Party is fundamentally different), surely prioritizing seeking truth and reporting and working with moral clarity would require the newsroom to recognize this, even at the risk of alienating one major party and half the American electorate? Otherwise he-said-she-said journalism risks lapsing into false equivalence?
Second, a post-election Tom Nichols piece in the Atlantic describing Trump as a “sociopath” and the roughly seventy million Americans who voted for him in 2020 as follows:
“[they] are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong.”
If that is so (and those who voted for Biden are not like this), surely truth seeking and moral clarity would require putting the role of racism and racial resentment front and center of all reporting trying to account for the election result – even if that might further alienate right-wing Americans from the news media? (I don’t think people appreciate being called angry, spoiled racists – even if some of them are angry, spoiled racists.)
Third, Wesley Lowery powerfully called for moral clarity in journalism this summer, and effectively suggested that notions of objectivity stood in the way of the truth, arguing that
“Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes — however cleverly — be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence.”
I think he has a strong case, and greater moral clarity on racism, sexism, and other forms of structural inequality could arguably help journalism serve many historically underserved audiences better – but at the same time I think also turn off many whites who voted for racist politicians, and may find labelling these politicians as such in news coverage partisan and off-putting.
To be clear, I personally agree the Republican Party has much to answer for, that racism (and sexism) is central to US society, and that many politicians actively traffic in racist stereotypes. And I find the case for focusing on commitment to truth and moral clarity very compelling. The hurt feelings of white Americans at being called racist is not more important than seeing the world for what it is.
But in irreducible diverse, disputatious societies where we are very different and often vigorously disagree about important issues I don’t think we agree on what moral clarity look like, and many forms of moral clarity I might personally find compelling, and that may potentially help engage more people of color and more women with the news, at the same time risk further alienating many conservative Americans from the news media. (It is already the case that just 13% of those in the US who identify as being politically on the right say they trust most news most of the time in our Digital News Report survey. Imagine their reaction if they and the politicians they vote for are routinely described as racists in day to day news coverage. Maybe that is a price worth paying. It would be a price nonetheless, and if paid, should be paid knowingly and willingly.)
If navigating this requires hard tradeoffs, then there is an inescapable trilemma, where we can have maybe two of the three values outlined above, but not all three of them, at least not simultaneously and in full.
And if so, then it is for each journalist and news organization to reflect on what they think right tradeoffs are. No one makes these choices for “journalism”. They are made by the individuals and organizations that make up journalism.
In line with Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young, I personally think these individuals and organizations have historically prioritized a vision of the whole public that in practice privileged white men, often affluent and well educated white men like myself, and offered little moral clarity on racism, sexism, class, and other forms of structural inequality, and that a reckoning with that is long overdue. (As I wrote about here.)
But that does not make the trilemma go away. Sometimes we cannot have it all and each of us will have to choose.
Looking at the three values I outlined at the top, I think all choices that deserve to carry the name journalism remain committed to the first one, seeking truth and reporting it. (The defining value of journalism in my view is to provide people with relatively accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced information about public affairs, something no other profession or institution tries to provide.)
But what else can one do at the same time? What combinations may the trilemma allow for? There are three, I think.
Clear and explicit editorial line: Some news organizations try to combine truth seeking that with different kinds of moral clarity (the Guardian offers one kind, the Daily Mail a very different kind). So seek truth, and offer moral clarity, but often divisive, definitely not for the whole public. 1 and 2, less 3.
Attempt to be duly impartial: Other news media try to report the news while serving everybody (BBC, Reuters) even if that may sometimes preclude the kind of moral clarity that many may want to see in how the news is covered, also – especially? – on the issues that divide us, like racism. So seek truth, and try to serve whole public, but can come across as deliberately obtuse on the divisive moral issues of our time. 1 and 3, less 2.
Jingoistic “journalism”: As said, I think news media who give up on the first value, seeking truth and reporting it, lose all claims on what the term journalism means to me, but we do see it in in the more jingoistic end of war coverage of “our troops” (“my country, right or wrong”, etc.). So, moral clarity for the whole public, but sometimes at the expense of seeking truth and reporting it. 2 and 3, but not much of 1.
Then perhaps we can map these three types on to my ugly sketch.
There is more to journalism than these three values, and news media, in addition to ideals, have interests (e.g. commercial sustainability) that complicate matters further.
But even without all that journalism aspires to be beyond these three values, and even without all those further complications, this trilemma seems irreducible to me, not so much as puzzle to solve as a set of choices to make?
I have tremendous respect for how hard these choices are to make, recognize how they can offer different kinds of valuable journalism, and find it entirely understandable that journalists often disagree on how to make them. But they may have to.
I’ve written a short book called “Hvad skal vi med nyhederne?” (roughly “What can we use the news for?”) in Danish, aimed at general interest readers curious about the news we have, the news we are likely to get in the future, and what it might mean. 100 pages, meant to be the kind of thing you can read in one sitting with a cup of coffee, something accessible that is informative and good to think with.
In the book, I offer a personal perspective, summarizing some relevant research, drawing on the experience of some of the journalists and editors I work with at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and interpret the news from the point of view of citizens, in part on the basis of conversations with and memories of how we use news and have used news across generations in my own family.
I pull together different strands to argue that news offers us three main things: (1) access to relatively accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced information about public affairs, (2) dramatic stories that portray contending forces in the world and help us identify with some of them and relate to them, and that news help us (3) connect with and be part of different communities.
As I write in the book, the news is not always as outstanding as some journalists and editors like to claim in self-congratulatory after dinner speeches, but research suggests that it, with its imperfections, has much to offer all of us.
That offer – the things we as citizens can use the news for – is challenged by growing inequality, more precarious funding, and lack of diversity.
But, as I write in the book, both independent research and especially the experience of working with unsentimentally forward-looking journalists and editors from all over the world means I am personally a cautious optimist that the best news we will get in the future will be better than ever, and help us — hopefully all of us — understand the world around us, navigate it, and form our own views of how we want to live in it.
Journalists try to seek truth and report it, and many would like to do it on behalf of the public, ideally the whole public.
Something like that sentiment, I think, is behind the inscription on the old Daily News building in New York, a beautiful bas relief with the paper’s title on top and at the bottom the inscription “he made so many of them”, invoking a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people; he made so many of them.”
Journalists who have never lived in New York often associate the city with the New York Times and may not know that the Times, for all its qualities, was long primarily an upmarket Manhattan newspaper and well behind the more popular Daily News in terms of audience reach and circulation. When I moved to New York in 2005, the News, whilemuch diminished, was still the most widely read print newspaper in the city, a title that, far more than august elite organs like the Times and the Wall Street Journal, tried to reach the whole, diverse, and often poor local public, and made doing that the basis of both its journalism and its business.
Of course, even the popular Daily News never reached everyone, just as journalism as a profession has always fallen short of the aspiration to serve the whole public.
Political pressures, economic realities, practical constraints and more have always limited journalism’s ability to really, fully, deliver on that ambition. As have professional routines, like the privileging of elite sources, and perhaps sometimes also cultural values that leave some journalists far moved from many people’s lived experience and worldview.
Many of these obstacles remain as relevant as ever. The “war on journalism” waged by authoritarian governments and powerful people across the globe, the severe disruption of the business of news driven in large part by the move to digital media and the rise of platform companies, necessarily limited resources in even the biggest newsrooms, compounded by structural inequalities internationally, between rich and poor countries, and nationally, between rich and poor communities. The obstacles to serving the whole public are many.
But the aspiration remains, and it is important in itself.
And yet, despite the aspiration, even in cases where these constraints are least present, in countries where media are largely free and the business of news still relatively robust, where there are still significant numbers of professional journalists and most of the public have unprecedentedly easy and cheap access to news, journalism falls short, often far short, of the aspiration to serve the whole public.
This is clear when we look at almost every kind of structural inequality, whether around class, gender, ethnicity, (some) religions, sexuality, and more, and of course especially where they intersect. Such structural inequalities influence both news coverage and news use. This is not a new observation, but it is an important observation.
These often long-standing forms of inequality are central to what Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young in an important recent book call “the reckoning”, a reckoning that, as they write, “starts with the audience – journalism’s multiple, diverse publics”. It is not about who journalism serves, and often serves quite well, but about who actually-existing journalism isn’t serving. Callison and Young highlight how many people are actively resisting what they call “prior journalisms” by “using social media and other forms of digital media to reflect, resist, talk back, counter, and refuse to participate in legacy media or journalism conversations.” It’s important to note that it is not that people can’t engage with the news on offer. It is that they often don’t, and sometimes actively turn their back on news that they find disappointing, irrelevant, or even harmful to them and people they care about.
I want to use some of our Reuters Institute audience research to illustrate a few aspects of how central the challenge Callison and Young highlight is, even in very privileged countries, because I think it imperils the “public connection” between journalism and various audiences that both the public purpose of journalism as a profession and the practical sustainability of news as an institution is based on.
I also want to offer a few thoughts about how we, at the Reuters Institute, are reckoning with structural inequalities and trying to make sure we serve a diverse and varied community of journalists across the world.
Structural inequalities threatens journalism’s public connection
The public connection first, and how structural inequalities threaten it. I’ll focus on the UK here because it is a diverse and unequal society and thus while very privileged in a global perspective less of an extreme fairy tale outlier than, say, my native Denmark. The UK also has a diverse and comparatively well-resourced set of very different news media across local and national media, popular papers and upmarket papers, public service media, and various digital-born new entrants, so a varied and substantial supply of news.
Who aren’t been served, then?
First, overall, among UK adults with internet access, 80% say they access news once a day or more (which we in our survey describe to respondents as “national, international, regional/local news and other topical events accessed via any platform (radio, TV, newspaper or online)”).
But the figure is significantly lower among young people, among women, among those with limited formal education and lower social grade, and among those who are alienated from the conventional politics of left and right.
In fact, these social inequalities in news use are more pronounced, often far more pronounced, than differences between the political left and those on the political right. Pundits frequently worry about political polarization in news use, but rarely about social inequalities in news use that are often bigger than political differences.
Second, in a diverse country, with a competitive media market, and different publishers aiming to serve different audiences, no publisher can be expected to reach everybody, or everybody equally. But consider a few observations about individual brands.
Take the BBC, tasked with acting in the public interest and “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”, and provided with £3.6bn in licence fee funding to deliver on this mission in 2018-19. The BBC is by far the most widely used source of online news in the UK, and remains both highly and widely trusted. But online, its weekly reach for news according to our survey data is 45%. This is far short of “all audiences”, and furthermore, the BBC’s online reach is significantly lower among women , young people, those with low levels of formal education and lower social grade, and those who answer “don’t know” when asked to indicate their political leaning.
Or take the Guardian, which unlike some other prominent UK newspapers remains free online, and is the second most widely used source of online news in the UK, with 18% weekly reach. Unlike the BBC, the Guardian is under no obligation to serve all audiences, and it doesn’t get billions in public funding every year to do so. But it is freely accessible, privileged with the Scott Trust as its owner, and has for years aggressively invested in digital to grow its audience far beyond its limited print circulation. Yet, like the BBC, it has lower online reach among women, among those with low levels of formal education, of lower social grade, and among those who say “don’t know” about their political leaning – lower among the latter than among those on the political right. (In contrast to the BBC, though, the Guardian has significantly higher online reach among young people than in the population at large.)
All our survey respondents are internet users. They all have access to the BBC and the Guardian, news media that many journalists admire, for free. But most of them don’t access them, and use is significantly lower among many less privileged groups.
And it is not just the BBC and the Guardian (and I don’t want to pick on them, I focus on them here because they are important and because I, like many others, admire both of them in different ways). Across the more than thirty news brands we have survey data on in the UK, only one (1), the Sun, has significantly higher online reach among people with lower social grade than among more privileged parts of the population.
Nor is it only news media. Aggregators and search engines too are more widely used to access online news by those of higher social grade. Social media in fact represents the only type of platform with a different profile, equally widely used as a way of accessing news online across social grades. And unlike for example BBC News online, social media are more frequently used to access news by women and young people than the public at large. (This way, especially incidental exposure to news may at least partially counter some inequalities common across how people access news more directly online, though as Kjerstin Thorson argues, the question of who attracts the news on platforms, and what kind of news they attract, remains complex.)
And these inequalities have been pronounced during the coronavirus crisis too. Not only has the news coverage sometimes seemed more interested in how the pandemic was playing out on college campuses and cruise ships than meatpacking plants and prisons, despite the distribution of cases. (Though I of course only know this because of reporting on it.) We also see pronounced information inequalities by age, gender, household income, as well as education, as news media have been more successful in reaching older, more affluent men with higher education than any other groups throughout the crisis.
I want to be clear: a mass audience is not necessarily in itself always the same as delivering massive public value, or a necessary precondition for delivering public value – the audience reach of BuzzFeed News and the Economist, HuffPost and the Financial Times in the UK is limited, but they often do important journalism.
But it matters greatly whether journalism and news overall reach a wide public. And I think it matters greatly if there are systematic, structural inequalities in who are served by the news, with almost all brands skewed towards more privileged audiences. And if many people, and perhaps an increasing number of people, in particular people who face various forms of structural inequality, see the news as at best disappointing and irrelevant, and at worst harmful or hostile, they are arguably right to turn to other alternatives—like the forms of digital media witnessing that Allissa V. Richardson identifies among Black US Americans, embraced in part, as Meredith Clark has pointed out, because many are tired of seeing mainstream journalists get it wrong. In such cases, journalism is diminished and weakened as an institution in part because it has fallen short of its own purpose and aspirations.
Facing such often long-standing structural inequalities and the reckoning that Callison and Young call for while also dealing with political attacks, disrupted business models, and the power of platforms is a big additional challenge for journalists and news media who have a lot on. But I think it is urgent for the public purpose of journalism as a profession and for the news media as an institution. And while not made easier by other challenges, I don’t think these challenges are the same. Would existing news media really serve underprivileged communities better if newspapers made more money and didn’t have to worry about Facebook? Writing in 1979, a time that those with selective memories, little real interest in history, and a tendency to romanticize the past may look back at as part of some mythical “golden age” of American journalism, Herbert J. Gans noted that “news reflects the white male social order” and is often suffused with paraideological assumptions that valorize moderatism, order, and responsible capitalism. I think it still largely does. This challenge, of examining such assumptions and of overcoming structural inequalities in who journalism serves and ensuring it is more diverse and inclusive in terms of who it represents and what it covers, is distinct from other challenges, and I think it has to be faced on its own terms.
The reckoning in journalism – and at the Reuters Institute
How do we face this challenge? I don’t know. And even if I was arrogant enough to think I did, I’d have no right to tell journalists, editors, media executives (or anybody else really) how to do their jobs. Instead, what I try to do is to work with my colleagues to offer journalists and news leaders opportunities for discussing their challenges with peers, connect them with other interesting people, and provide independent, evidence-based relevant research, so that they can develop the responses they think are right for each of them, on the basis of their aspirations, their context, and their values.
There won’t be one way ahead. As with many of the other challenges and opportunities that journalism and journalists face, I think we need to recognize the fundamental reality of conflict inside journalism itself as we discuss how to face this challenge. Journalists will disagree over this too, they will have different priorities, different interests, different values, and we will never simply agree on one consensual one-size-fits-all solution. There will be fights. There will be winners and losers. Addressing diversity and inclusion in some areas won’t always go hand-in-hand with addressing them in others (popular papers have often been great at reaching less privileged white men, some of them have also been rather racist and sexist). People are getting hurt by the status quo, and other people will feel they get hurt if we change the status quo.
But I want to say a few things about how I think about structural inequalities in my own work as I enter my third year as Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and about our way ahead.
I am a privileged, affluent, highly educated white man leading a privileged institution at a privileged university in a privileged part of the world. We carry the Reuters name, which we are extremely proud of, even as we are also conscious of its history of imperial entanglements. We are part of the University of Oxford, which has its own multitude of issues to face. We have the privilege of working with loads and loads of other privileged people, organizations, and institutions across news media, governments, and the technology sector. We need to reckon with who we at the institute do and do not serve, just as the profession and industry we engage with needs to face its own reckoning. If “the public”, in James Carey’s parlance, is journalism’s god-term, I suppose “journalism” is our god-term. And just as any mention of how journalism serves the public should prompt the question “what public?”, our invocation of journalism prompts the question “which journalists?”
I want to be very clear, I am very proud of the work we do, and of the legacy we build on. But I also know there is always room for improvement, and that improvement requires self-examination and new priorities. So here are some notes on how I think about how our work can serve multiple, diverse journalisms.
We do three things at the institute, we run programs for mid-career journalists, we offer leadership programs for editors and news media executives, and we run research programs. Beyond this we work hard to communicate our work and deliver on the debate and engagement parts of our mission.
To better understand how we are doing in terms of serving multiple, diverse journalisms, we are introducing a set of internal diversity trackers at the institute across these starting this term, inspired in our own small way by the important 50:50 project founded by Ros Atkins at the BBC and now adopted by many different news media. We have adapted their three core principles – collect data to effect change, measure what you control, and never compromise on quality – to create our own simple and flexible self-monitoring system across our activities. The tracking is partial and limited because it has to be practical, and what we track vary by area, but broadly, we are tracking gender (like the 50:50 project) as well as geography (because our mission is global), and for speakers we feature in our seminars, a basic white/non-white coding. We are missing out on many important things (class, religion, sexuality, etc.) but I hope this will be useful nonetheless.
Because we are conscious that our existing programmes are limited in various ways, and will remain so even as we monitor how we run them and aim to ensure they are diverse and inclusive, we are also pursuing a range of new priorities.
In terms of our journalist programs (led by Meera Selva), we aim to develop additional short courses that can be more accessible for journalists who for personal or professional reasons are not able to join a three- or six-month fully funded fellowship. While we remain very committed to the distinct value of in-person, on-site, private programs (journalists face hard challenges and need to be able to discuss them in confidence among their peers), we are also looking at ways in which we can replicate the particular qualities of private, off-the-record conversations in small groups in a safe space can be delivered online. We hope these initiatives will, over time, help us serve more, and more diverse, range of journalists from across the world.
In terms of our leadership programs (led by Federica Cherubini), we also remain strongly committed to the distinct value of in-person, on-site private programs, but again, recognize that cost and geography limit who we can serve with that model. We are therefore looking at developing off-site offers specifically targeted on poor parts of the world where travelling to Oxford impose an additional barrier, and also examining the potential for developing private online programs for individual independent news media in the Global South so that we can work with them, learn from them, and perhaps be of use to them.
In terms of our communications (led by Eduardo Suarez), to ensure our work is accessible to multiple, diverse journalists, we are focused on developing out networks with journalist covering the media across the world, doing some of our communications in Spanish (and on occasion a few other languages), increasingly translating at least parts of our research into Spanish, and investing in expanded capacity to write about journalism in the Global South – the latter in part because it is intrinsically important and doesn’t get the same attention at least in English as journalism in more privileged parts of the world, in part because we believe journalists everywhere can all learn from the experience of peers who have long operated in the face of political attacks, precarious business models, deep inequality, and profound polarization. (This may be new to some, but it is arguably the global norm.)
All of these priorities are at least in part at the expense of other things we could have done, and often done more easily. Our resources are limited, as are the hours in the day. We are proud to be part of the conversation that journalists and news media have about themselves in privileged high income democracies, a conversation often dominated by voices from the UK and the US, and we want to continue to be part of it because it is important and we learn a lot from it. We could double down on that. It’s often easier to fund than global work. But we won’t. We take the “worldwide” part of our mission – exploring the future of journalism worldwide through debate, engagement, and research – very, very seriously, and prioritizing it while also systematically monitoring how diverse our work is across other dimensions I think it’s key that we at the Reuters Institute make sure that we serve multiple, diverse journalisms.
The journalisms we had and the journalisms we want
We try to do this while remaining both respectful of the history and track record of actually existing journalism, what Candis and Young call “prior journalisms”, without being beholden to it or blind to its many limitations. As I wrote when I took over as Director of the Reuters Institute in 2018, we are not here to help people go back to the journalisms of yesterday, but to work with journalists from around the world as they build towards better journalisms for tomorrow, whether that is Adesola Akindele-Afolabi thinking about how financial journalism in Nigeria can serve poor people better, Camilla Marie Nielsen from Ekstra Bladet, a popular title akin to the Daily News of old, develop ways of reporting on sexual abuse to fatigued audiences, Tejas Harad analysing the barriers Bahujan journalists face in Indian newsrooms, or any of the many other journalists, editors, and news media leaders we work with.
We may be in Oxford, but we are not bound by the dead hand of tradition and we won’t let a romanticized picture of the past hold us captive. Much of journalism has, frankly, been classist, homophobic, racist, sexist, and xenophobic for far too long. Some of it still is, and journalism is demonstrably failing to reach many people who face various structural inequalities. Failing business models and new technologies may not make facing and addressing this any easier. But I think we have to. And I personally think we should.
As we do, I will think of the Daily News building and the “he made so many of them” inscription. It is important to seek truth and report all the news that’s fit to publish. It is also important to try to serve the whole public. And people, like journalists, are all different, and often want and need different things. We’ll try to keep that in mind at the Reuters Institute, and I hope journalists and news media will keep it in mind too. That is the only way we can confront the structural inequalities and issues arounds diversity and inclusion that are a distinct, and severe, threat to the purpose of journalism and the sustainability of news media.
The coronavirus pandemic is a communications crisis in addition to a medical crisis, as the outbreak is accompanied by a deluge of information, including considerable amounts of misinformation and rumours.
Handling what the WHO has called an “infodemic” is a necessary part of an effective response.
If people do not have access to reliable information from trusted sources about what they should do to protect themselves, their families, and their communities, and if they do not understand how authorities are responding, public health measures will be less effective and public health will suffer.
The response to the communications crisis should in my view ideally, just as the response to the medical crisis, be informed by expertise and up-to-date evidence.
How we respond to the coronavirus is a profoundly political question, and a question for each of us and the communities we are part of. Research cannot, should not, and will not dictate how we handle the coronavirus communications crisis, let alone the wider medical emergency and societal impact of the pandemic across our communities, the economy, and more.
But research can inform our responses, provided research is made available for us, as citizens in the public at large, as well as for decision-makers in governments, health authorities, and the like.
Communications research has a lot to offer – but are we offering it?
I believe communications research has a lot to offer in informing both public and policy decision-making in this crisis. But I think the relevance and importance of our collective work is rarely recognized. I think we are relatively absent from many of these debates. And I’m not sure we are always doing what we can to change that.
If that is so, the result will be that substantially important public (and policy) discussions of issues deeply intertwined with the core of our field are dumber than they could have been, in part due to our relative absence, an absence that I think is in turn in part due to the ways in which we as a field do our work.
I have written elsewhere (and draw on that here) about how even in high-profile cases that clearly involve issues that are in large part about communications (e.g. the role of different forms of political communication including misinformation and more in influencing various political outcomes in for example the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and UK EU Referendum), we as a field are often largely marginal to these public discussions. Instead, academics from more or less adjacent fields (economics, political science, sociology, in some countries even law) are invited to hold forth with their more or less informed views on our core object of analysis, communications.
The communications crisis around the coronavirus pandemic I think is another powerful illustration of this.
We might think we have what Thomas Gieryn calls “epistemic authority” over communications, but often, no one seems to care what we know. If we actually know more about what we study than others do – which I think we do (otherwise we might as well all go home?) – there is a consequence from our absence, an opportunity cost, a price that the public will ultimately pay in a crisis like this, as well as a consequence for our field by reinforcing the perception that we are irrelevant.
If that is so, I think we should do what we can to change it?
External and internal factors influencing our absence
So if we are relatively absent, why is that? I think there are external and internal factors (more about it here).
External factors we have no control over. They include what I think is in most countries our relatively low status as expert sources among journalists, who tend to go to others for information about our area (we aren’t exactly “primary definers”), and the way in which “knowledge regimes” in many countries are institutionalized in ways that privilege other sources of knowledge for input in policy processes than ours (they’ll probably go to the economists, lawyers, and think tanks first, no matter what we – as scholars of communication – think).
One World Health Organization webinar I attended early on, organized specifically to help others deal with the communications crisis and starting with the observation that “infodemic management must be built around evidence” featured more than a dozen expert speakers, of whom only one (Leticia Bode) to my knowledge has ever worked or published in the field of communications. (The term “infodemic” itself I think is interesting. It is not an established concept our work or social science research more broadly. It comes from a newspaper comment piece written in 2003, and while evocative, a Google Scholar search suggests almost no use of it in academic research prior to 2020.) A UK government call for social science experts to help advise them on the crisis was circulated, but did not even list media and communications research among the fields and disciplines they were interested in.
Internal factors we, at least collectively, and especially those of us who occupy positions of privilege and power within communications research, have some control over. They are rooted in some of the informal norms and formal reward systems that characterize our field. Both informally and formally, I think we often privilege a certain way of producing peer-reviewed work for a narrow academic audience to a degree that risks relegating everything else—interdisciplinary collaboration, teaching, service, let alone various forms of public engagement—to the margins. Despite some variation from country to country and university to university, at a field-level what we recognize (informal norms) and reward (formal institutions) is primarily peer-reviewed publications produced for a field-internal academic audience.
Let me underline that I strongly believe that peer-reviewed publications are an indispensable core of what we do. Public and policy engagement is not a substitute for scientific work, but engagement can enhance it and supplement scientific work, creating what Helga Nowotny calls “robust knowledge”.
It is precisely because I believe that we as scientists together can produce distinct, valuable, and reliable knowledge with a bearing on some of the big issues of our time that I am concerned with our relative irrelevance to public debates. I believe we have much to contribute to debates like the debate around how to confront the communications crisis that is part of the coronavirus pandemic.
So how visibly engaged are we as a field?
Not everyone is in a privileged enough position to prioritize engagement if informal norms and formal rewards are tightly focused on very specific things. But some of us are. Few more clearly than those we honor as ICA Fellows, all of whom are distinguished scholars, and most of whom have senior, secure positions with considerable autonomy over how they spend their time, including whether and how much they prioritize various kinds of engagement.
The ICA Fellows are formally and informally celebrated role models for our field – they do scholarship, and through the recognition we bestow on them for their distinguished work, they also model scholarship for the wider community.
So how visible are the ICA Fellows as ambassadors for their own and our collective research in the coronavirus crisis? There are many forms of meaningful public and policy engagement. Not everyone is in a position to do any, let alone all of them (our primary responsibility to those closest to us arguably takes precedent over professional responsibilities). But perhaps appearances in news coverage can give an small indication of how visible or invisible we are as a field.
There are currently 181 ICA Fellows listed on the association website. Of these, 124 are (a) alive and (b) working in an English-speaking country. Leaving aside those who are sadly no longer with us, and the many eminent colleagues who work at least in part in other languages than English, I have worked with Felix M. Simon to collect data about how frequently these 124 ICA Fellows have appeared in the news in connection with coronavirus.
Our data collection was simple, and not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive (we don’t look at broadcast or social media, for example). It is not any way a rigorous analysis, but simply indicative of how visible we as a field are in public debate as mediated by news through these distinguished scholars who represents much of what is best in our community.
For each fellow, we have searched for them by ““FIRSTNAME LASTNAME” coronavirus” on Google News for the period from January 1 2020 till May 20 2020. To guard against human error and the often inexplicable variation in opaque systems like Google News, we both collected data for a random subset of 10 individuals. For 8 of these 10, the result was the same, for the remaining, minor variations.
In the 141 days from January 1 to May 20 (both included), these 124 distinguished communications scholars and ICA Fellows collectively appear 405 times in news coverage captured via Google News. It is worth noting here that Google News is very, let’s say, ecumenical in the definition of “news”. The University of Pennsylvania Office of University Communications is included alongside the BBC and the New York Times, as is Penn Today, run by same office, and the independent student newspaper the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Here is a bit more detail on what we find—
Five ICA Fellows, four women, and one man, account for half the media mentions (197 mentions, 49%). They have a wide range of areas of research interests including children and media, health communication, journalism studies, and political communication
For those who might suspect public engagement comes at the expense of scholarly impact, it is worth noting that these five ICA Fellows have Google Scholar citations ranging from over six thousand to almost fifty thousand.
The median number of news mentions among the 124 ICA Fellows is 0. Sixty-six of them do not return any results. It’s not even really a long tail, more like a stump.
Women make up 47 (38%) of the 124 ICA Fellows included, but account for 251 (62%) news mentions in the sample. This is heavily driven by those with the most mentions. Looking only at the 119 ICA fellows in the long tail who account for half the news mentions combined, women account for 36% of the fellows and 37% of the mentions.
(This is not a competition, and not zero-sum, but for comparison, the British political scientist John Curtice appeared 185 times in the same period when searching for him the same way on Google News. The American sociologist Ruth Milkman a 106 times. Trisha Greenhalgh, Professor of primary health care and a practising general practitioner, 158 times. All of three of them appear more often in coronavirus news stories on Google News than any of the 124 ICA Fellows included here.)
I don’t think thousands of media mentions are intrinsically valuable, but if they are ICA Fellows appearing in the news, I would have confidence that they are in most cases an important part of how our field and our collective work is presented to the wider public. In the ocean of coronavirus crisis coverage, where Chartbeat reported 2.3 million articles on COVID-19 in the first three months of the year alone, with 405 mentions of more than a hundred of our most illustrious colleagues over four months, can I say I think we are bordering on being invisible?
What do we do next?
The 2020 ICA conference theme is “Open Communication”, which our President Claes de Vreese describes as part of the wider move towards open science, among other things “oriented toward advancing scholarship through transparency, wide-ranging collaboration, and a focus on the creation of public goods [and] sharing knowledge about our research process”. And more widely across the field, I think there are moves afoot towards more engagement in different forms.
Everyone will have their own favourite examples, here are a few of mine.
In 2019, the Journalism Studies Division introduced a public engagement award for out-wards oriented work (supplementing the 12 different awards the division gives for more field-internal oriented forms of work, including multiple best paper awards for both faculty and students, best extended abstract, best poster, best article, best dissertation, best book, and best reviewer) championed by our chair Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt. The new award recognize different kinds of engagement, including informing the public about research and making it more accessible, influencing policy or professional audiences and their work, and/or involving the public directly in research projects, partnerships, events, and engaged learning approaches. The 2019 recipients were Sue Robinson and Talia Stroud, the 2020 recipient Irene Costera Meijer, all of whom command tremendous respect for their commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement.
In 2020, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a titan of our field, of political communication scholarship, and an ICA Fellow among many other honours, received the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal for her “non-partisan crusade to ensure the integrity of facts in public discourse and development of the science of scientific communication to promote public understanding of complex issues”. She is again a scholar who has demonstrated through an extraordinary career her commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement.
And of course there are many important examples beyond those who work mostly in English, or indeed those who appear in the news – Julia van Weert and her colleagues at the Amsterdam Center for Health Communication engage both with the public and policymakers in the Netherlands and beyond, Hye-Jin Paek is bringing her academic expertise to bear while currently working for the South Korean government. Leticia Bode as said has featured in multiple WHO settings, discussing the important work she has done with Emily Vraga.
It’s interesting to note that both in the news mentions of ICA Fellows, and the more impressionistic examples I list above, women feature far more prominently than they do in raw numbers of ICA Fellows or in the most privileged, senior positions in many parts of our field. It is worth noting here, I think, that some researchers analyzing academic work and career patterns argue that many dominant informal norms and formal rewards in the academy privilege a dominant form of masculinity associated with older and frankly stereotypical images of the natural sciences, with the lonely researcher perched atop a scientific hierarchy, far above everyday issues, and sometimes effectively punish others, often women, who chose to practice science in ways tightly bound with other societal practices concerning the production, transmission, translation and exchange of knowledge.
Men, who in all countries I know of still occupy the vast majority of senior positions and full professorships in our field, and account for 77 of the 110 ICA Fellows included in our data above, are not entirely absent of course. Not only has Claes de Vreese championed open science in communications. Another example is ICA Fellow and former Journal of Communication editor Silvio Waisbord, who explicitly argues in his book The Communication Manifesto that we need to tackle academic institutional politics if we want to strengthen public scholarship as central to the mission of communication studies. He too I think is an example of a scholar who combines research excellence with public engagement.
All these and more every day demonstrate their commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement, and demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that this is not a zero-sum trade of, but that we can be excellent scientists, and excellent at engaging with those outside of our field, at the same time. Who knows, maybe both the public and we will benefit in the process?
What could we do?
What might more public and policy engagement look like? Some of this simply requires hard work and prioritizing engagement, not as a second shift or a hobby, but as part and parcel of a scholarly vocation. If there is something akin to the marketplace of ideas John Stuart Mill described as a “rough process of struggle,” we need to get stuck in – as Hamilton sings in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “when you got skin in the game, you stay in the game”. I would encourage in particular colleagues in privileged positions to think about whether public and policy engagement could play a larger role in their professional work.
I also think we can look for inspiration in adjacent fields for innovations. If the Washington Post can host the Monkey Cage blog drawing on political science, why not a blog on media and communications research? Many colleagues already write for the Conversation, an pieces there are sometimes re-published elsewhere. Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Pratap Mehta write regularly for newspapers, as do Zeynep Tufekci who may be the most prominent public voice for our kind of work right now. Beyond a narrow focus on news, there is social media, podcasts, webinars, and free online courses, and much else. Sonia Livingstone has given Ted Talks. The climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has built up a very public profile across events, news, social media, and more. Institutes like Data & Society set up by danah boyd serve as what Peter Galison calls “trading zones”, spaces for thinkers, academic or otherwise, to listen, argue, and even collaborate and develop “interactional expertise”, the ability to talk from a position in a field to those overlapping with it, adjacent to it, and outside it.
We have a lot to offer. But we have to offer it, and I think we have to informally celebrate and formally reward those who offer it if we want to institutionalize engagement as part of communications as a field. I think we should.
And in this context I think it is particularly important that those who enjoy the rare privilege of secure employment and considerable autonomy, and who we hold up as role models for future generations of communications scholars, think about whether and how they represent our field and bring our collective expertise and knowledge into public and policy discussions of the big issues of our time.
The coronavirus pandemic is a communications crisis in addition to a medical crisis and much more. It is a moment where we can really help make a difference. I am not sure we are doing the best we can, but I hope we will try. We might even learn something ourselves about communications by offering it, and build an even stronger field. I think we will.
I wrote this post with super helpful research assistance from Felix after a panel at ICA 20 chaired by Claes H. de Vreese, where Hye-Jin Paek from the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Hanyang University (working in South Korean government currently); Julia van Weert, Professor of Health Communication at the University of Amsterdam; Dietram A Scheufele, Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Leticia Bode, Associate Professor at Georgetown University, and I had a chance to discuss how our work as communications researchers might matter in the coronavirus crisis. Watch it hereand more about our RISJ COVID-19 research here.