In the era of social media commentary, many young people wonder if critical journalism still matters. Young people feel that their causes are ignored and that diverse voices are marginalized. Much of the criticism that I hear as a student journalist stems from a lack of understanding about what journalism is: how reporters write stories, how the editing process works, and how the finished product is released into the void of the Internet.
When breaking news pops up, the reader flies through new articles without thinking about the many difficult decisions that were made during the article’s creation. The entire process takes an alarming amount of high-pressure, high-focus work for a product that can be read in a minute.
Social media has expanded readership for many outlets, and news sites are increasingly dependent on clicks from Facebook and Twitter to support their bottom line. The inherent openness of social media has contributed to the democratization of information and the spread of new and exciting ideas. Readers have never had more information and commentary so easily available. But who you follow is a choice, and many users would rather interact only with those with whom they agree.
Media organizations cannot assume that the public understands how a newsroom operates or how a story is reported. An Ipsos survey in 2015 revealed that only 10 percent of those surveyed thought that the media “acts with integrity.” In my experience, few young people understand how much effort it takes to write an informative story under a tight deadline. When I explain my editorial responsibilities to friends, they are surprised and overwhelmed on my behalf.
Here is what I think journalists can do to help restore credibility with young people.
Media organizations need to become better at explaining how they operate and make an effort to be more inclusive. In a positive step, The Guardian and The New York Times publish widely read ombudsmen, whose job is to address concerns voiced by readers and ensure fair and accurate coverage. The Guardian’s Stephen Pritchard has addressed how to cover mass killings, to portray disability, and accuracy in breaking news—three areas where major media sources are often criticized. The Times’s Liz Spayd has addressed the paper’s “liberal bias” and its use of anonymous sources.
Other outlets have published “explainers” that detail why they cover certain stories. ProPublica has written about why it published a story using the documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 and has justified its criticism of the Red Cross’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Even if readers don’t buy the arguments, laying them out bolsters credibility. Other news organizations should follow this example.
Journalists are not robots that spew out lists of facts, and even the driest articles are written by fallible humans. This is not a fault of journalism, but what creates its appeal. Anyone can look up the basic facts on the Internet, but critical journalism contextualizes them within a greater human narrative. Luckily, journalists have the perfect platforms to explain how we work.