Schudson: “Professional Journalism Will Survive the Post-Truth Era Because We Actually Aren’t in a Post-Truth Era”
“If a lecture is titled in the form of a question, it’s fair from you to expect that somewhere along the way I will answer the question,”, professor Schudson said in the opening of his public lecture “Can There Be Professional Journalism Post-Truth, Post-Trump, Post-Twitter?”, which was the inaugural session for a new university-wide course under the Intellectual Themes Initiative called “Journalism and Social Change in Historical Perspective,” jointly offered by the School of Public Policy and the Department of History and co-taught by CMDS fellow Dean Starkman and Constantin Iordachi. The question, however, may seem darker than it is, as Schudson, who is a renowned expert of the history of journalism, media sociology and political communication and a firm optimist, suggests “that professional journalism will survive the post-truth era because we actually aren’t in a post-truth era, it will certainly outlast Donald Trump and it’s already demonstrating that it can adapt, even thrive in a digital era”.
Giving a historical overview of the evolution of professional journalism and the landmark events that shaped its professional standards, Schudson emphasized that American journalism reached a moment in the 1950s, when reporters were committed more to the norms of the profession than to political ideas. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was challenged with heavy criticism from both insiders and outsiders who complained that news reporting in its effort to be fair, turned out to be biased towards the sources that journalists accepted as legitimate sources: government officials and political candidates of leading parties. It made journalism some sort of a hand maiden to the powerful, and it was losing a lot of its audiences to television, which transmitted news more quickly and factually.
As a result, from the 1970s, journalism incorporated new models of analysis, interpretation and investigation, accepting that after all, facts do not speak for themselves but must be set in context. Whereas in the 1950s, 90% of front page articles were factual news, by the end of the 1970s, their number reduced to about 50% with the other half being contextual, analytical or interpretive articles. This transformation was aided by a broad change in the culture of knowledge production with critical thinking gaining a more prominent role in it.
Journalism had to face yet another challenge with the advent of digital media and the growing popularity of social media, and the divide between fact-checked news and gossip is no longer crystal clear to most news consumers. Does that signpost the end of professional journalism, as we know it?
“None of us can escape the limitations of collective human knowledge. None of us can escape our own subjectivity,” emphasized Schudson. But as long as we look for expertise in emergency situations and act in our everyday lives as we do now, respecting facts and reason, we cannot say that we live in a post-truth era. Facts do matter. They make things happen. And “although people have loved to hate the media for quite a long time, there’s no wave of support for suppressing the news media,” Schudson pointed out in his talk.
As for the potential threat Twitter may pose for professional journalism, Schudson believes that it’s a serious misperception because in this overwhelming multitude of information created, posted and shared every minute, there hasn't been any nonprofessional news that forced government officials or politicians to officially respond to it. In contrast, facts secured by professional journalists of online or offline news organizations have continued to hold politicians and officials accountable, and similarly to earlier investigative reports, it was a professional media outlet that prompted the #MeToo campaign by bringing the allegations against Harvey Weinstein to light.
How does the current media landscape look like in the US? Schudson believes there are grounds for cautious optimism for the future of political journalism. While the financial crisis wiped out a third or in some cases, half of the editors and reporters of newsrooms, what people did not predict in 2009 were the Panama or Paradise Papers, Wikileaks, the #MeToo campaign – all made possible thanks to professional journalism.
Will professional journalism be as sturdy as it was before? To Schudson, the answer is yes. “Not identically sturdy. Differently sturdy.” Digital media revolutionized access to news, enabling news organizations to reach global audiences. “We’re clearly in a new world of news media”, Schudson said, adding that although we can’t tell how long it will take the industry to get stabilized, it will undoubtedly be based on professional, evidence-based news reporting.
Michael Schudson's public lecture is available here: