Why Good Journalism Lost to Noisy Populists
1 May 2017 By Marius Dragomir
Open society media camp has lost the information war with the often inarticulate, yet vociferous, populist lot. To gain back the trust of the masses, they have to learn a more popular language.
“If a Republican acted like me and ran for office, it’d be a movement. Donald Trump has proven me right. People are tired of pussies.”
It was not the first time Mike Cernovich, the Southern California-based founder of the blog Danger & Play, was sharing such a contentious opinion online. The tweet, posted in the summer of 2015, was both a premonition (about Mr Trump’s rise to America’s presidency) and a telltale sign of the new generation of influencers in the country's political discourse.
Mr Cernovich vents his fury against the establishment or waxes lyrical about the Trump clan on Danger & Play, a blog he launched back in 2011. He was among the first to insinuate, in August 2016, that Hillary Clinton had a grave neurological condition. At some point, he said that only people “who live in a cucked world where no one speaks their minds” can be offended by Mr Trump.
Mr Cernovich has more than 256,000 followers on Twitter today. The New Yorker magazine called him last year “the meme mastermind of the alt-right,” defining the alt-right as a “a loose online affiliation of white nationalists, neo-monarchists, masculinists, conspiracists, belligerent nihilists, and social-media trolls.”
Mr Cernovich is also the epitome of a social movement and mood, though, that pipped open society media and its supporters to the post last year.
How did the open society media camp, those influential thinkers, including journalists working for independent media outlets, private donors who support good journalism, academics and experts who produce the evidence that should influence and inform the public discourse, lose the information battle?
Taming Technology and Sowing Deception
A key challenge for the open society media camp is the massive change in how political content is distributed to consumers. Thanks to opportunities new technologies have brought about, sites like Danger & Play or the left-wing sensationalist website The Free Thought Project manage to reach and influence swathes of audiences.
University of Washington professor Kate Starbird explained that what unites readers of these sites is their distrust of globalism, which they see as a hodgepodge of issues including immigration, science, the U.S. government and the European Union, but also mainstream media. In recent years, Ms Starbird has studied the public reaction online after mass shootings in America. A lot of conspiracy theory sites and content were identified, but Ms Starbird initially dismissed all of it as “laughable.” When properly mapped, these “strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk unearthed a growing alternative media space online with “surprising power and reach.”
The website Infowars.com, curated by Alex Jones, an informal advisor to Mr Trump, has a readership comparable to the Chicago Tribune, according to Alexa.com, a web-traffic monitor. In the months leading up to the 2016 American election, the number of likes and post shares from the site Freedom Daily, which publishes bogus stories, was on average 19 times higher than from the international TV network CNN, according to a study published in March 2017 by Emily Bell and Taylor Owen.
Technology, though, is just a tool. One has to know how to use it. Clearly, the right-wing media and their supporters were much faster adopters of online dissemination. On any given day, the Trump electoral campaign was testing up to 50,000 versions of its ads on Facebook: “A/B testing on steroids,” Ms Bell and Mr Owen wrote.
“Populist media has been more effective with the use of data, insights and tools such as bots, and others, as well as capable of deploying armies of activists to veer debates to their positions,” said Miguel Castro who works on strategic media partnerships at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a grant maker financed by Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates.
“They [the right-wing media] spoke in a simpler, more direct language, closer to the people, and [were not] condescending,” said Maria Teresa Ronderos, director of the journalism program at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a grant-making organization funded by the investor and philanthropist George Soros. Plenty of old tricks were used across the board: scandal, yellow journalism, playing to all kinds of fears including job losses and terrorist attacks. “Some of the media were helped by very savvy digital campaigners who knew how to individually target each person through social media,” Ms Ronderos said.
Since 2008, “a distinct right-wing media network had grown, made up of relatively new outlets,” according to Ms Bell and Mr Owen. Part of their agenda was to trash the mainstream media.
Facebook is a key distribution platform for their stories. With 1.9 billion active users and two trillion searchable posts, it is the media organization with the biggest audience in history. More than two-thirds of American adults are active on Facebook, according to a 2016 study by Pew. In 1980, only 42% of Americans watched the primetime newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS, America’s major TV networks.
Social networks like Facebook are structured in such a way as to promote anti-journalism. They are perfectly designed to “exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor,” according to Ms Starbird. “Your brain tells you that you got that information from three different sources, but you don’t realize it comes from the same place, sometimes via bots posing as real people. We may be headed toward “the menace of unreality” and an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it,” Ms Starbird wrote.
The “fake news” pandemic that governments, regulators and social media networks seem poised to fight is a distraction from a larger issue: the structure and the economics of social platforms, which “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material,” Ms Bell and Mr Owen wrote. Good journalism, which investigates power, or serves marginalized or local communities, is obliterated by a system that “favors scale and shareability.”
Some of the large, international media will survive this war, but smaller and local publishers are hit hardest.
So how did the open society media camp react to all this?
Not well so far, they say. Mainstream media fell into the trap of polarization and tribalism, and failed to truly know their audience and properly cover their communities. Donors generally support the right causes, but sometimes they fund too much “journalism for journalists.” Often, they don’t follow up on measuring the impact that their grantees have. Some of them simply ignore communications. Academics, who should be part of and influence the public debate, rarely venture outside their comfort zone.
A Defeat Explained
“Don’t feed polarization, disarm it,” wrote Andres Miguel Rondon, a Venezuelan economist living in Madrid. “By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.”
That was a big mistake liberal media and journalists made.
Supporters of the isolationist and hate-driven tribalism (that has been around for a very long time) became sophisticated in “leveraging whatever tools are available to achieve power, status, and attention,” wrote Danah Boyd, the founder of the New York City-based Data & Society, a research institute. But those “seeking a progressive and inclusive agenda,” the enemies of tribalism, haven’t kept up.
“The traditional liberal media was fascinated by [Mr] Trump and gave him billions of dollars of free publicity before they realized their mistake,” said Des Freedman, professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. “President Trump’s lies alone have become their own beat, forcing publications to devote precious resources to invalidating the many outrageous claims he makes daily […],” Mike Mariani wrote in the April 2017 issue of Vanity Fair.
Other miscalculations that liberal media made include lazy assumptions about the power of rational persuasion, especially the credibility of technocrats and experts of different kinds, a penchant for bloodless analysis (accompanied by a lack of passion, vigor and flair), and the discrediting of governments, politics and politicians generally, said Sina Odugbemi, who works on operational communication at the World Bank.
“Politics is not inherently a discreditable calling; yet, that is how it has been portrayed for a while now,” Mr Odugbemi said.
It is true that liberal media has a much harder task than populist media. “Rational persuasion is a lot harder than raw emotional appeal,” Mr Odugbemi said.
At the end of the day, media and journalists are to blame the most for the defeat in the fight with populism. For years, news publishers were drowned in audience data, but didn’t have any interest in their audience other than monetization, Ms Bell and Mr Owen argued in their study.
They failed to understand their communities and, more importantly, to cover them. In contrast, populist media and its supporters managed to do just that. “There is a good tradition of progressive populist media, which seeks to tell stories about the powerful in simple and accessible terms,” said Mr Freedman of Goldsmiths. “The liberal media have all too often forgot to do this and seem more interested in representing their readers than in reflecting critically on the world even if it is uncomfortable for their readers.”
OSF’s Ronderos explains that some media, particularly the smaller, local ones, didn’t have the capacity to properly cover their communities because the digital revolution hobbled them financially.
Conventions that have been commonplace in journalism, such truthful and evidence-based storytelling or double-checking your sources, have been broken and disregarded by the populist-supportive media, said Mr Castro from the Gates Foundation. “By all means I applaud that liberal media still tries its best to respect the rules of traditional journalism and abide by ethical standards, but in some sense to compete for attention and to cut through the noise, something else has to be done,” Mr Castro said.
The audience failure seems to be the problem of donors as well. Private donors have overwhelmingly supported what some say is “journalism for journalists,” in-depth, complex stories about big political or economic issues that journalists are interested in most of all. That has its value, but does not reach a wide audience. Funding has to go somewhere else as well.
“My sense is not so much that they [private donors] were supporting the wrong media, but that they haven’t supported effective outreach work,” said Julie Broome, director of Ariadne, a network of leading private donors. Ms Broome thinks that funding some media that promotes messages you think are important, such as partnerships between major English-language newspapers and private foundations, has limited impact simply because it reaches “only the people who self-select to read news from that particular outlet.”
“In the U.K. following Brexit, foundations were wondering why they didn’t know that older, white, unemployed, working-class men were so fed up,” Ms Broome said. “But how many foundations actually had any contact with those people? Or how many of their grantees did?”
A response of private donors to the rise of populist media has been to invest in fact-checking journalism, which in recent years has been booming across the world. Fact-checking is a major contribution to journalism. South African website Africa Check claims that political parties wrote to them acknowledging “mistakes” that they made.
However, sometimes the impact of these sites has been limited as no coherent strategy was put in place to make sure the content based on checked facts reached those locked in populist sites. “We sometimes had the feeling that we were checking facts for ourselves, or for those in our camp, well-informed people who already knew or guessed that politician X or politician Y was lying,” said a journalist from a donor-funded fact-checking outlet in Latin America who declined to be named. In other cases, fact-checking had an unexpectedly negative effect. “Fact-checking trying to debunk […] only backfired: then the conspiracy must be true,” Ms Starbird wrote.
Still, some of the initiatives financed by private donors had a significant impact. Ms Ronderos of OSF points out that most liberal media in Europe and the U.S., those that often fell for populist tricks, are not necessarily funded by any donors. In contrast, media and initiatives like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which broke the Panama Papers investigation, “the story with the biggest and widest impact of last year,” were funded by donors, Ms Ronderos said.
Finally, where were the experts and scholars when the open society media lost to populism?
“What are Trump’s policies? I don’t particularly care,” Mr Cernovich wrote on Danger & Play last year. People like Mr Cernovich who didn’t have a platform to speak before realized that they could now influence the debate. A digital device and an internet connection empowered so many, who never before dreamt of influencing the public debate, to spout off. “The populist forms of communication allowed people without a high place in society to become leaders,” said Gordana Jankovic, who heads the media department at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental organization. “They understood that if they’re good with words, they will come close to a position of leadership.”
Yet, why is it that academia, a space with access to a cornucopia of knowledge and expertise, didn’t influence these debates?
The root of the problem is accessibility.
Much of the academic work is locked in academic publications, inaccessible to ordinary readers. Few academics publish on popular platforms, failing to influence today’s public debates, scholars Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr wrote. They estimate that an article in an academic journal is “read completely by no more than ten people”.
Every year, up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published, according to some recent estimates. But few people read them, even within academic environments, Some 82% of articles published in humanities journals, for example, are not cited even once, according to Mr Biswas and Mr Kirchherr.
In academia all forces are pushing things toward insularity, which is in total contrast with how journalism evolves. “As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience,” Joshua Rothman wrote in the New Yorker back in 2014.
That happens for a number of reasons. First, there is a narrow idea in universities of what academics should or shouldn’t do, according to Savo Heleta from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. Some academics, for example, refuse to write non-academic pieces because of the “dumbing down” complex. Secondly, there are no incentives for academics to reach out of their erudite circles. Universities rarely incentivize their academics to write in popular media or appear on TV or radio. Finally, academics generally lack training on how to explain complex concepts to a lay audience, according to Mr Heleta.
Time to Turn the Tides?
If the open society media camp wants to win back what it lost to populism last year, much has to change in media and journalism, the strategies of private donors and academia.
Firstly, to win over audiences now lured by the populist camp, media and journalists have to revisit their editorial strategies. “[…] We need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in,” Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT’s Center for Civic Media, wrote on his blog. He added that the answer lies in building “wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.”
However, to be able to do that, media have to first solve their structural problems, of which funding is a major part. That’s not a cakewalk. “Good reporting is not currently algorithmically privileged on many platforms,” Ms Bell and Mr Owen wrote.
The dilemma for news organizations is whether they should continue to run their expensive business, with their own publishing infrastructure, which brings them smaller audiences, but complete control over revenues and audience data; or give away control over audience data and ad revenues to Facebook and other platforms in exchange for a massive growth in audiences. “If they wish to retain independence, it goes without saying that news organizations need to find models for funding that work independently of the social media ecosystem,” Ms Bell and Mr Owen wrote.
The response is hardly the commercial model, unless platform companies themselves collaborate to fund journalism.
“We need to rediscover effective means of supporting independent journalism,” said Mr Freedman. They could be levies on digital intermediaries, or public subsidies for public media that is truly independent of government and market. “Above all, we should campaign on the basis that our media systems are not fixed and immutable, but take the shape that our most powerful interests dictate,” Mr Freedman said.
Donors can help by pushing the media they support to rebuild trust within their communities. In Ms Ronderos' opinion, trust is the core issue in journalism and politics right now. Fixing that would solve many challenges that the open society media camp is facing. Ms Ronderos’ new program strategy at OSF is addressing that at the moment.
Private donors should also beef up investment in the media. Some 7% of the US$ 914.7m in the OSF’s 2017 expenditures is slated to be spent on media and information, according to data released by OSF. That is the smallest share in the organization’s total funding this year.
“My feeling is that […] we need more, much more private philanthropy coming to the media,” said Mr Castro. Many private foundations signal that they want to focus on media and communications. Improving communications is one of the top priorities of private foundations, according to a survey among donors carried out by Ariadne earlier in 2017. Moreover, some foundations that didn’t spend any money on media or journalism before are now thinking about what their role might be there, Ariadne’s Broome said.
But some warn that donor funding isn’t the only solution. “I simply don’t think private donors matter that much one way or another,” said World Bank’s Odugbemi. “In several media markets these days, the populist megaphones [on radio, television, print, online] are gigantic. Add their intensity, ruthlessness and relentlessness and what you get is frightening power.” Only an equally mighty media can fight that.
Donors are only a small player, but if they stick to their role as a corrective for the industry, then they can achieve significant impact, said OSCE’s Jankovic who previously led the media program at OSF. “They [donors] should always remember that role,” Ms Jankovic said. “If they fulfill that role, they can achieve impact with niche projects.”
Finally, academics have to come out of the ivory towers. Especially in these post-truth days, “we need to work doubly hard to make sure research and evidence are valued by those in power,” wrote Katy Oswald of the Institute for Development Studies at University of Sussex in the U.K. Working in partnership with others, chiefly decision- and policy-makers, is one way to do that, according to Ms Oswald. That’s what she calls “engaged excellence.” Research should be “directly involved in the real word, not separate or abstract from it,” she wrote.
But whatever journalists, donors and academics do to beat populism back, not much can’t be achieved if the environment is shaped by bad policies and rules.
“The need to reach beyond the educated cosmopolitan elites living in big cities has never been more urgent,” World Bank’s Odugbemi said. Nonetheless, the biggest need in many countries is the reform of media systems, which is a “fiendishly difficult” process, he says. Ms Jankovic believes that all key actors involved in media, including donors, should seriously engage in media policy because that has a major impact on the nature of journalism.
Instead of spending resources and time to analyze the distinction between “the good guys and the bad guys” we should focus on “the structural issues that made new entrants possible and the conditions that made them desirable,” said Monroe Price, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.
All these debates come at a time of worsening conditions for freedom of expression and rampant corruption in the public sector. A total of 67 countries experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, which was the 11th year in a row when declines outnumbered improvements, according to Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded NGO. Moreover, established democracies dominated the list of countries that suffered setbacks last year.
Some 69% of the 176 countries canvassed in its 2016 corruption perceptions index by Transparency International, a Berlin-based NGO, scored below 50 on a scale from 0 (indicating massive corruption) to 100 (perceived as clean), a clear sign of “how massive and pervasive” public sector corruption is everywhere.
All this is worrisome.
The open society media camp is well-placed to cover such big issues. It only has to learn how to pass that information on to more people.
Photo: Vlad Thcompalov
Marius Dragomir is the director of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) at CEU School of Public Policy in Budapest. This story was a project carried out for CMDS during January-April 2017. Over 40 interviews were carried out for this story.
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