Questioning Authority

Do journalists or the public get to decide who has credibility? And what happens when they disagree?

Who can credibly claim the title of “journalist” and the associated authority that the title carries? How is this power being contested and withheld in an age of declining trust between the public and the media?

As part of our series of conversations with leading media theorists and historians, News-to-Table discusses the changing nature of journalistic authority with Matt Carlson, associate professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota. His most recent book is Journalistic Authority: Legitimizing News in the Digital Era (Columbia University Press, 2017).

Your book Journalistic Authority looks at the changing ways journalists establish, and the public gauges and grants, credibility and authority. What’s changed in the last decade or so with the ascendency of digital media?

My book argues that for journalists to tell us anything at all, they must have authority. When we see a news story about something that’s happened and we believe that the thing happened (more or less) as presented, we are granting authority to journalists. But journalistic authority is a particular kind of authority. It’s not about having power, like the authority of a judge in a courtroom, but the authority of producing legitimate knowledge about the world. The core of the argument is that journalists do not get to decide they have authority; it depends on forming relationships with others, like audiences and news sources.

And relationships are never static.

Right. If we think about journalistic authority in terms of relationships, it becomes clear that these are ongoing, malleable, exchanges.

Authority is not a thing, it’s a way of relating to someone. This is where digital media come in. If we step back just a minute and think of the massive changes over the past 20 years, it’s astonishing. Just to pick on one element, digital media open the doors to so many different types of public voices that couldn’t have existed at any real scale before. What this does is offer up many competing types of authority. The stoic institutional authority of a Walter Cronkite-type news anchor exists alongside the authentic seeming voice of the citizen-journalist. The inverted-pyramid of the Associated Press sits next to the partisan news site. They all compete for our attention.

How have social media altered expectations about knowing about journalists’ personal lives and other details about how they do their jobs?

With social media, journalists now have a lot of tools for talking directly to audiences — and allowing audiences to talk back to them. Ideally, this allows for greater transparency and perhaps makes journalists more human. It can even help journalists find ideas and sources outside the bubble of their usual beats. But it also asks a lot of journalists who are already overworked and under-resourced. Social media also increase the pressure to published quickly, which can lead to embarrassing mistakes. It’s one of those things that might not be better or worse, but just different in good and bad ways.

How do you see the “sets of relationships” that go into establishing modern journalistic authority evolving? What are the implications of different possible futures?

Journalism’s biggest problem right now is really generating revenue. Credibility is always a concern, but the underlying structures of digital media have been devastating for news, particularly local news. Newspapers have seen their subscription numbers drop and the bulk of online advertising goes to Google and Facebook, not to news outlets. These are strong headwinds, and journalists rebuilding their brands need to focus more than even on the types of relations they have with audiences as they come to rely more on digital subscriptions or membership models. This was never really part of how journalism worked in the days of mass media dominance. There’s no script for this. The challenge will be building strong ties with audiences as readers — and not advertisers — pick up more of the bill for the news that we see.

We also have to expect a future where there won’t be one single model of journalism. If we look at newspapers, they kind of look and function the same, whether it is a small town daily or a larger metropolitan paper. Television news has been the same way. What we are seeing is a diversity of models. We’ll have some partisan news sites, some community-driven ones, some more traditional, etc. These different models mean different types of relationships between journalists and their audiences. No one type of establishing authority will exist.

What reforms do you advocate to arrest corroding public trust in journalism and its institutions?

There is a lot of debate around this question, mainly because there is no magic formula that will work for everyone in all places. Trust in journalism has been corroding for around a half-a-century now, and so we should seek long-term solutions to a long-term problem. The partisan attacks on the press have been entrenched for some time; Trump certainly didn’t invent them. So, first we need to accept this is going to be difficult and results will not be easy to come by and not get discouraged.

My own take is that journalists cannot expect their work to speak for itself. There’s just too much baggage around journalism these days — too many voices vilifying the press or telling us not to trust journalists. Journalists have to defend their work and the importance of what they do. They should avoid abstract platitudes about democracy and focus on concrete practices. They should explain how the news gets made. And they should call out those whose criticisms of the press are only self-serving. Journalists aren’t comfortable with this type of self-promotion, but it is essential for building trust and staving off attacks.

You wrote a piece for Nieman Lab last year in which you expressed a fear that the president’s attacks on the press would lead to violence. Is that dynamic worsening?

Words have consequences, and Trump’s persistent labeling of the press as the enemy of the people is extraordinarily dangerous. Certainly, there is physical harm to worry about. After all, what else are we supposed to do with enemies of the people except eliminate them? But there is a deeper corrosion taking place when the news media are being so unfairly villainized.

I should state clearly that the press absolutely needs be subjected to regular scrutiny and mistakes or bad habits need to be pointed out publicly. We should expect this in a democracy. But such ratcheted up rhetoric pushes out any reasonable critiques, leaving only the most inflamed and exaggerated insults.

I expect 2019 will be calmer because it is a non-election year and we have grown numb to the president’s ‘enemy’ epithet, before a tumultuous 2020 campaign. Journalists will need to worry not only about the legitimacy of their profession, but their personal safety.

Production Details
V. 1.0.0
Last edited: January 14, 2019
Author: Alexander Zaitchik
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Bernard Hermant / Unsplash