Into the Issues Spring 2017

Into the Issues Spring 2017

Journalists must adapt to Social Media Era but can do it
without changing principles, API head says

By Al Cross

Journalism needs to adjust to the new era of social media, and it can do that without changing its essential principles, but the public needs to help, the executive director of the American Press Institute said Wednesday at the University of Kentucky.

Tom Rosenstiel

Tom Rosenstiel

Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of The Elements of Journalism: What News People Need to Know and the Public Should Expect, spoke at the latest installment of the UK School of Journalism and Media’s “Challenges to Journalism” series.

Using the book as a template, Rosenstiel discussed how elements and principles of journalism have been affected by social media and other technologies, and how journalists can adapt. But the Elements also say that “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news,: and he said the role of citizens as consumers of journalism “probably is the issue that has exploded the most.”

“In effect we are our own editors” as we use social media, Rosenstiel said, but Facebook is programmed to give us information that its algorithms suggest interest us, which may steer us away from views contrary to our own. “Whether we are in a filter bubble is dependent on us.”

Readers, listeners and viewers once used their judgments about news sources as a filter for news, but on social media that branding is largely lost, and the news becomes “atomized,” story by story, Rosenstiel said, with little emphasis on the original source.

Social media thus lack an essential element of journalism, the “discipline of verification.” Rosenstiel explained that the discipline calls for “objectivity of method, not neutrality,” because individuals cannot be expected to be truly objective.

The objectivity of method, driven by what journalist-philosopher Walter Lippmann called “a scientific spirit . . . is actually the antidote to fake news,” Rosenstiel said. “We are in the era of show-me news: ‘Show me why I should trust you.'” He said that is done by making the evidence in a story, and the sources for it, clear and transparent. “The key element is the reporting and the evidence, not a beautiful narrative.”

The elements or principles that journalists “must maintain an independence from those they cover” and be “an independent monitor of power” are “under siege from various pressures,” Rosenstiel said, including the proliferation of news outlets that are more about “the journalism of affirmation” of news consumers’ beliefs. “Audiences like to see news they agree with.”

Journalists need to understand that in many cases they are no longer the gatekeepers for information, but “annotators of information we’ve already heard,” Rosenstiel said, which makes it more important for them to check facts, knock down rumors and help readers make sense of events, trends and issues. He also said it’s more important than ever to put labels like “analysis” on stories that go beyond the facts.

Rosenstiel said “the area of greatest challenge” for journalism may be its need to “provide a forum for public criticism and compromise,” because the “commenting media” are growing while “the reportorial media” are shrinking and looking for more revenue from the audience to make up for less advertising.

That is making a real difference in many states and localities, as congressional delegations and local governments and get less coverage, Rosenstiel said. “We often overlook the importance of reporters simply showing up,” he said. “Bad things happen when people in power think they’re not being watched.”

How about other Elements of Journalism?

  • “Its first loyalty is to citizens: “As news organizations’ finances have eroded, its loyalty to citizens has been weakened, with more use of sponsored content, and “This is something we need to worry about,” Rosenstiel said.
  • “Make the significant interesting and relevant:” It’s more important to listen to the audience, Rosenstiel said, because the web and economics are moving the market away from “publications of record” to “publications of interest.” The web rewards specialization, not the old model of general-interest stories, so local publications “need to decide the few things they need to get better at.” One encouraging finding is that people will still read long stories, especially at night and on mobile devices, he said.
  • “Keep the news comprehensive and proportional:” With fewer resources, we “need to think about comprehensiveness within topic,” Rosenstiel said, keeping in mind that “The function of news is to create community knowledge.”
  • Journalists should “exercise personal conscience:” Rosenstiel said research shows that the expansion of news outlets have drawn conservatives out of traditional newsrooms, so editors and publishers need to think about ideological, class and cultural diversity.

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. See