Trust Issues

Yes, the Media Still Matters

Journalism experts on the era of ‘fake news’ — and what lies ahead

Photo by John Phillips/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

TThe 2016 election made the public examine the media with newly critical eyes, for reasons valid (the press’ failure to capture Donald Trump supporters’ sentiments pre-election), propagandist (“fake news”) and overall disturbing (“Pizzagate”).

But Americans’ perceptions of media have been in a precarious state long before Trump was elected president. A 2017 Gallup poll showed that American trust in mass media has been steadily dwindling since 1999. With regular announcements of newspaper layoffs both large and small, major websites and alt-weeklies shuttering, and hard-news reporters being assigned tasks like creating slideshows and participating in comment sections, the idea of a robust journalistic workforce receiving the time and salary to rebuild the public’s trust seems like a noble pipe dream.

So why go to journalism school? How can we study media and learn to create it when news isn’t really news anymore?

We spoke with seven journalism and media professors from a range of journalism programs about how training trustworthy future journalists has — and hasn’t — changed since the 2016 election.

The Trump Bump

Peter Slevin, Northwestern University: Applications to the undergraduate program at Medill School of Journalism were up 24 percent this year. [Students] want to be in the game. We’re at a moment where it’s essential for them to understand what makes fact-based journalism important. They want to learn to make extra sure they don’t mess up, because the stakes are so high: People are so willing to come after the press for the smallest mistake, real or imagined.

Mark Feldstein, University of Maryland: I came of age during Watergate. A lot of us were inspired by the heroics of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men to become reporters. We’ve seen a big increase in applications. It’s nice to see the same sort of idealism infused in this current generation.

Elio Leturia, Columbia College Chicago: Students seem to have fewer angles for stories than they used to. They have general ideas: “I want to report on homelessness,” instead of trying to find the local angle. I think I know why: They’re glued to their phones, so these little machines are between them and the world. A student wrote a story for our school paper about how she sat on a seat on the train and it was wet with pee. So then she reacts. It has to happen to them, because they’re not observing.

Facts, Fake News, and Outright Lies

Andrea Frantz, Buena Vista University: When [networks like] CNN, FOX, and MSNBC began to blur the lines between straight news reporting and opinion, people quit being able to discern the difference. Not particularly critical viewers began to assume that all of it was truth. Then, as social media burgeoned, we’ve begun to see a generation of people getting the majority of their news from Twitter feeds and not really clicking the links. Asking critical questions about what we’re consuming has taken a back seat to the convenience of getting something fast.

Joel Kaplan, Syracuse University: There’s a dilemma because our resources are so much more limited than they used to be. Fewer people actually reporting but spending more time trying to cut down rumors. If you spend all your time proving the fakeness out there, you have no time to do real reporting. Your time is better spent trying to go out there and find the facts.

Feldstein: It’s interesting watching the news media grapple with this — you see how they struggle with their use of the word “lie.” I think objectivity is a nice goal but not really possible. You can try to achieve it, but we all bring our subjective baggage to how we cover it.

One of the challenges with Trump, both for the news media and for those of us who teach in the classroom, is how do you be fair and balanced but also truthful? Sometimes truth and balance are at odds. Sometimes there are not two sides to an issue: [Sometimes] one is factually wrong, whether it’s evolution or climate change — they’re empirical fact. People in academia have a certain obligation to those facts and to teach those facts, even if people don’t want to believe them.

What Should We Be Teaching?

Kaplan: I’m teaching a course in the fall on political reporting. I want to send students to all of the contested congressional races in the Northeast, to go out there on the road and see the reaction of the public instead of just sitting behind the computer. One of my complaints about 2016 was that because of so much downsizing in local media, people weren’t going to the auto plant in Toledo to see the Trump stickers on people’s cars. I want my students to do that for the midterms.

Frantz: We look at a lot of specific cases in my First Amendment law class, like the Berkeley protests that led to the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech there and how the University of California system has worked to create new policy associated with that, and the new voices laws [being passed] across the nation. These are things my students are studying that they didn’t used to.

Trolls, Critics, and Commenters

Slevin: I tell students that they’re going to hear from their readers or viewers or listeners — and they better brace for it. It is one very significant change from years ago. They need to have thick skin and to be able to look their audiences in the eye and know that they did the best, fairest, most careful, most honest work they could.

Frantz: Some of our student athletes and cheerleaders took a knee this fall. I live in a very conservative part of the state—we are Steve King country, God help us. The public was absolutely incensed and became very abusive in the comments section of the student newspaper. [Our school had] a brand-new president who was trying to navigate [holding his] first board of trustees meeting on campus in the midst of this take-a-knee issue, and the board is completely pissed off at the students. The students were really struggling with “how do we report on this in depth and keep after it but also support students on campus for taking a knee?” The student journalists just kept reminding themselves that fairness and balance were keys to good in-depth reporting.

No matter how hot the issue, student journalists can’t let on that they’re sweating — at least not publicly. While we all have strong feelings about issues of racism, free speech, and what constitutes civil community dialogue, student journalists have to remember that their role is to offer the scene clearly and as completely as they can. Period. It’s then up to the community members to decide what to do with it. In some ways, the self-restraint student journalists are encouraged to practice is a good model for the “adult” news consumers out there who regularly mimic television news and talk radio pundits by screaming down oppositional perspectives.

It was an interesting line that they were walking, but my students prevailed. They covered it like crazy, they covered both sides of it, and they continued to ask the hard questions, They were outstanding in their efforts [and won national awards for their efforts]. But it was tough; they got a lot of pushback.

New Types of Classroom Conversations

Jesse Holcomb, Calvin College: It’s my first year on faculty at the college in this role, so it’s been really interesting to land at this institution from a very different environment in Washington [at the Pew Research Center] at a time when so many of our assumptions about the ways journalism works are blowing up in our face. So it makes for no shortage of classroom material.

Frantz: Ten years ago, we didn’t talk about immigration in the classroom; now we talk about it a lot. The things the students get excited about right now have become much more community and globally centered. Thirty years ago, my students were concerned about the Persian Gulf War, but more concerned about things like the quality of the food on campus. Now they’re worried about transgender bathroom bills and stuff that they didn’t used to talk about, ever.

Feldstein: It is a challenge for those of us who are teaching to make our classrooms safe spaces for everyone to feel comfortable saying what they believe, partly because the anti-Trump students are in the majority [in our program] and some of the Trump supporters sometimes feel shy about defending him. I’ve had students email me to say, “People think you’re a racist just because you’re supporting Trump, so I’m not going to say anything about it in class.” I try to draw this out in discussions. What I care about is that they learn and that the classroom is a place where all sides can be expressed.

Holcomb: What I try to do is to emphasize basic assumptions we hold dear about the dignity about all human beings, which is something these students would recognize as Calvin students. A recent feature appeared in the student newspaper about LGBT+ students on campus that explored identity in the context of same-sex relationships. It’s a subject that can generate controversy in certain religious quarters. Here was a great example of student journalists who navigated an ideologically and theologically fraught subject in such a way that placed a primary emphasis first and foremost on the dignity and the humanity of LGBT+ students.

Leturia: I come from a background in which politics are part of the daily conversation. [In Peru,] friends talk, colleagues talk, even though they can be affiliated with one party or the other party. In the United States, they say, “Look what happened,” and the topic is changed very quickly. If somebody in the group is a Trump supporter, we don’t want to talk about it. There will be tension there; we want to be happy. That’s the American syndrome to me: It’s a land of happiness, but it’s fake happiness. I want to talk about [politics]. It doesn’t matter that we don’t agree.

Rethinking Reliability

Holcomb: I emphasize to my students to scrutinize the idea that just because someone important is saying something we [should] publish it.

Natalie Hopkinson, Howard University: We have allowed official sources, particularly law enforcement, to dictate the story for too long. Now we know law enforcement can be unreliable narrators. Just because you have a government badge does not mean that you have a monopoly on the truth. You have to fact-check and verify what they say. [When it comes to recent widespread mistrust of the media,] it’s like, “Welcome. I’m glad you’re understanding that these people can’t be trusted. Because they can’t. No human can.”

What Lies Ahead

Frantz: My students are more optimistic than they were five or 10 years ago. Then, when we talked about journalism, we were almost always talking about network TV and huge daily newspapers. Now students are seeing the possibility of different ways of storytelling. Students in my audio production classes have become very excited and passionate about great investigative deep storytelling modeled by [podcasts like] Serial, S-Town, and Reveal.

Hopkinson: I had a full scholarship to Howard through Cox Newspapers [when I was a student]. That felt like a time of abundance for newspapers. Now, if it’s financial security my students are looking for, journalism is a bit like trying to be a coal miner. They are getting screwed over, from [their] college debt to our national debt. It makes it very difficult to justify taking a $25,000-per-year job when you get out of college. This is having [the] effect of whitening these industries even more than they already were.

Feldstein: There is a “Trump bump” that’s affecting hiring in news organizations. My fear is that it’s a sugar high that will last through his administration, but who knows after? Whether it’s Mike Pence or some Democrat who will generate fewer clicks and ratings, the revenue will go down. The deeper problem in journalism is at the local level, where newspapers are dying.

Holcomb: I think something of a great humbling has occurred. A journalism student today needs to recognize that they cannot take their audience’s respect, interest, or attention for granted, and they can’t expect to legitimately cover a community without that community being represented in their newsroom. I don’t think that conversation was as active a while ago as it is today, and that’s a good thing.

Chicago-area writer with bylines in the New York Times, Atlantic, and Wall Street Journal. Author of 2 books for young people; mother of 2 actual young people.

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