Letters from the Editors Column

Who writes the first draft of history?

By Anne Lee Steele

In an era of both fake news and threatened press freedom, it is sometimes hard to say if journalism as we know it has become more important or more irrelevant than ever.

On one hand, our attention spans have decreased, even as our tendency to “doomscroll” has increased. “Doomscrolling”, or “the tendency to scroll through and seek out bad news that is saddening, disheartening, or depressing” has been associated with negative effects on mental health, and was even the subject of a recent advisory by the World Health Organization. But as our student life editor wrote a few weeks ago, this is only reinforced by algorithms and an ad model that value attention and clicks above all else.

On the other hand, the role of journalists has never been more important –– or more under threat. Just last week, journalists were arrested in India, Ethiopia, and South Sudan for publishing critical reporting on their governments. The International Center for Journalists has long reported a rising threat to journalists and newsrooms worldwide: from Maria Ressa, a prominent journalist in the Philippines who was recently convicted of cyber libel, to police aggression against journalists in the United States, which reached an all-time high during the Black Lives Matter protests. A functioning “fourth estate” has never been more important, especially during a time of increased misinformation and disinformation.

But this has left newsrooms in a Catch-22: somewhere between fighting for the increasingly fragmented attention of readers, while doing their best to keep power in check. Data-driven and visual journalism have exploded in popularity because of this. But because sensationalism and negativity sells, readers are ultimately left to “doomscroll”, while becoming increasingly less inclined (or quite frankly, too overwhelmed) to engage. No wonder Tik Tok, which is a certified dopamine hit, experienced such a meteoric rise during the pandemic.

These shifts in the newscycle and how we consume it pose a fundamental challenge to news organizations as we know them. But in an age where protests are first recorded on Twitter, or where important commentary is shared on Telegram or Facebook first, up-to-date reporting is clearly no longer the domain of news organizations alone. Journalists remain important for combating misinformation and disinformation, but do they really write the rough draft of history anymore?

Because social media has fundamentally decentralized how we consume our news, allowing for the everyday citizen to participate in its making, journalists are no longer the sole gatekeepers of history. This has lead to important critiques: questioning how white and increasingly middle class newsrooms cover issues about people of color, to how racism and stereotypes affect how foreign correspondents report in non-Western contexts. But it has also lead to controversy: WikiLeaks has become an important publisher for political leaks, but remains untethered to the journalistic ethics that ground the profession in the first place.

Aside from reinforcing the doomscrolling dynamic, how can journalism reinvent itself for its new role as gatekeeper, factchecker, and maintainer of “journalistic” ethics? What role do journalists play in covering the “first draft” of the news, while allowing for the decentralization and empowerment that social media has enabled? A number of alternative forms of reporting have emerged to mitigate these problems, but they remain limited in different ways: 

The need to both inform and to educate, what Vox calls “explanatory journalism”, has solidified a new role for journalism as a form of public education that describes issues on a structural level. While this type of reporting has also been criticized for simplifying complex issues for a popular audience, and replacing traditional reporting with a form of opinion, commentary, and aggregation, advertisers appear to favor this model, as they drive clicks and engagement.

In a similar vein, “solutions journalism” has emerged as a method of both reporting on the news that focuses on “responses to social issues, as well as the problems themselves”. It has generally been applied in the context of advocacy within and for local communities, and been thought of somewhere between explanatory journalism and creative communication. But while this model offers alternatives to critical stories of the “doom scrolling” kind, who’s to say that this method won’t turn news reporting into opinion essays?

While these methods aren’t perfect, they’re showing a clear trend: one where journalists no longer report “all the news that’s fit to print” (which is more in the purview of Twitter these days), but also educate, explain, critique, and provide solutions. Events can immediately be reacted to online, but longer-term investigations or big data sets remain the terrain of journalists.

If journalism is no longer the “first draft” of history, it might be better served as a second, or a third.

Letters from the Editors is a rotating column, written by The Graduate Press Editorial Board. It is meant to serve as a platform to discuss regional, personal, and political issues surrounding the role of a journalism in their respective societies.

Photo by felix on RawPixel.

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