BRAVE NEW WORLD: Global Challenges to Public Interest Journalism in the Age of Trump

Instructor: Dean Starkman

Credits: 2.0

Course description: Elective Course, Media and Communications Specialization/Concentration

For years, the global journalism crisis has been viewed by scholars and policy experts as one problem among many – a troubling defect in the media system that may one day lead to problems for democracy but could be addressed in due time. Not any more.

Few doubt that the global march toward illiberalism punctuated by the election of Donald Trump is – in some way – tied to the collapse of legacy journalism and the concurrent rise of disaggregated, unverified fake news sluicing its way through social media platforms.  Walter Lippmann’s words of 1920 are even more true today: “For in an exact sense,” he said, “the present crisis in western democracy is a crisis of journalism.”

This course explores the place of public interest journalism in a democratic society and seeks to enlist students in creating positive policy solutions to support it.

In the first segment of the course, we define terms — what do we mean by “journalism,” “journalist,” the “public interest,” “public-interest” or “accountability” journalism, “access journalism,” the “public sphere” — and explore journalism’s relationship to democracy and civil society. We will read and critique examples of public interest journalism (PIJ) from the present, past, the West and non-West. We will read critiques of journalism and explore the gap between the journalism ideal as a foundation of democracy and its limitations and failures. We examine questions such as: Is journalism a catalyst or product of social change? Why is it often subservient to power but sometimes a subversive force for social change and reform? We then explore specific issues of economic, legal, regulatory and technological suppression, surveillance, censorship, and violence. We will devote two sessions to the case of Hungary, a laboratory of sorts of press suppression both through legal and parliamentary means and through so-called “soft-censorship” and develop the concept of “market suppression,” by which governments in small markets control media advertising, the lifeblood of commercial media. We will explore examples of ‘hard censorship” via examples such as Turkey, Egypt and China; the problem of violence against journalists as well as harassment, threats, and trolling, particularly against women journalists, state surveillance and state prosecution and harassment of “whistleblowers” and other journalistic sources. We will explore the collapse of traditional business models for journalism and the resulting “brave new world” of information.  The last segments will search for means to rebuild journalism through commercial models and public policy options.

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Define public-interest journalism, explain its evolution across time and national various national contexts, its current place in the journalism field, its limitations, its potential, its relationship to the public sphere, and its vital role in promoting and sustaining civil society.
  • Critically discuss a range of critiques of the profession from a range of perspectives.  Analyze competing ideas and practices within the profession.
  • Analyze and critique legal and regulatory barriers to public-interest reporting in various national contexts.
  • Analyze and explain the role of violence and other extra-legal means in suppressing journalism.
  • Design policy solutions for protecting public-interest journalism from regulatory, legal, and extra-legal private threats.
  • Design a rudimentary business model for a news organization.