Roundtable: Further Reflections on the Future of News
After the publication of Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment (Oxford University Press, 2005), in which he shows that the prognostications of experts often are little better than those of ordinary people, it can seem odd to devote a roundtable to just that: the prognostications of experts! In my defense, I can say that the idea for this roundtable—a set of reflections on the future of American news media—predates the publication of Tetlock's book.
But I think I can say more as well. People seem inescapably drawn to predictions, both making and talking about them. Perhaps it is rooted in an evolutionary need to continuously surveil our environment for coming dangers. And there appear to be many dangers facing contemporary American news media. Economic pressures, new technologies, and growing reader/viewer apathy are only three trends changing the landscape of the news. We may all be excused for asking, "What is going on here?" Or, perhaps more pertinently, "What is going to happen to the news?" Even if we get the specific answers wrong, perhaps the conversation itself is important.
I have asked five of our members who work on these issues to address the latter question. Dan Hallin leads off in a commentary on his influential essay, "The Passing of High Modernism in American Journalism." Now over a decade old, the essay's key concept—modernist news —has become a shorthand among scholars working in this area for describing American news media from roughly the 1940s to the 1980s. This is the serious, high-minded, professionally-oriented journalism that rode side-saddle to the growth of the 20th century administrative state. Hallin argued that the day of this journalism had largely "passed," due to a complicated mix of political, technological, economic and social factors.
In his update of that essay, Hallin largely recapitulates his argument, but adds several thoughts on changes in American political life and their consequences for contemporary news. One conclusion one might draw from his essay is that, although the day of modern news' primacy has passed, many of the qualities that distinguished it—objectivity, balance, etc. —likely will not disappear altogether.
Two of our contributions, Hamilton and Tewksbury, tend to agree with Hallin, and for the same reason: there seems to be a reliable, if relatively small, market for high-minded, professionally produced, public affairs journalism. And as long as there is a market for this journalism, some segment of the news media will serve it. Hamilton describes the economic logic behind a continued interest in producing modernist news, and Tewksbury argues that at least some segment of the news-consuming audience remains committed to the expertly-produced/passively consumed information characteristic of modernist news.
Writing from the perspective of a former journalist, Singer suggests some modest reforms that might allow mainstream news organizations to remain viable in a rapidly changing environment. First, don't try to duplicate what bloggers, infotainment shows, and other media outlets do. This is not a contest news organizations can win. Instead (and second), news outlets should build on their strengths, which are precisely the kinds of qualities—professionalism, objectivity, etc.—that defined "modernist" news. Third though, this does not mean grasping at modernist news even as its legitimacy wanes. Rather, it means reorienting mainstream news to make it more reflective, explanatory, and analytical. It means focusing less on getting information first than on getting explanations right, which, in turn, will require opening up basic sourcing and reporting practices to make them more inclusive and far-reaching.
Deuze provides more of a rebuttal to the view that some version of modernist news will remain in place. Drawing on broader social theories of global social and cultural change, he argues that modern news is dead and just doesn't know it yet. In its place is emerging a highly fragmented media universe. In contrast to Hamilton and Tewksbury, Deuze argues that in the second, "liquid" phase of modernity, individuals will be required to go it alone even if they wish to remain relatively passive information consumers. In line with Singer, Deuze believes that to remain relevant mainstream journalists will be required to make substantial changes in how they gather and report the news. But he seems to go further than Singer in his suggestion that future news will essentially be a co-production between journalist and audience. In the end, Deuze articulates a postmodern vision of news in which all that is solid truly has melted into the air.
As Tetlock shows, we don't know which, if any, of these predictions for the future of American news media will beaccurate. But they give us much food for thought and I wish to thank all of the authors for their contributions.
James T. Hamilton, "The Market For News: 30 Years Back, 20 Years Forward"
David Tewksbury, "The Future Holds Less and More for the American News Audience"
Jane Singer, "Take the High Road—And Share It"
Mark Deuze, "Liquid Journalism"