It would be challenging to detail even a fraction of the loss, grief, anxiety and fear we have suffered in 2020; the breakdown of political and governmental norms; the degree of reckoning we are seeing in the U.S. over 400 years of violent racism; the changes to how we work, how we socialize, how we travel.
So much about our politics, the economy and people’s daily lives has changed. There are few signs that our journalism is changing fast enough to keep up.
Start with the impact that the pace of the news cycle itself is having on both journalists and readers.
Picture one of those automated pitching machines they have in batting cages. President Trump or his administration does or says something outrageous, and a fastball is launched toward the media, they hit it squarely with the bat, and observers of the process understand exactly what’s going on.
Now picture 100 of those pitching machines, aimed at that batter, shooting pitches all at the same time, from different angles. Balls glance off the bat, off the body of the batter, and fall off to the side. Dozens fly right by them. Solid contact is made with a few, but it’s hard for people watching to focus or take note of even the home runs amid the chaos. After a while, the batter is resigned to missing pitches and can no longer get people to feel outrage about getting hit by them.
Our failure to keep up with 2020’s news cycle is a crisis. Our failure to prevent normalization of repeated and outrageous assaults on the truth and democracy is a crisis.
We also must ask how the extraordinary turmoil of 2020 is changing readers’ attitudes, perception and consumption of the news.
We’re several years, now, into a full-on assault against the role of journalists, and really, against objective truth. A frightening percentage of the population is convinced not only by broad cries of “fake news,” but attempts, for political gain and power, to undermine faith in science, educators and civil servants.
Arguably, though, just as significant a number of people on the other side of the equation have become so alarmed by these things that they’re more civically engaged, and better poised to be strong consumers of quality journalism, than ever.
“Optimizing for trust” when reporting and presenting the news, and having a vigilant strategy for combating misinformation are essential to refusing to cede ground to the former and equipping the latter.
Daily newspapers also need a strategy for how they present local and state news vs. national news, and how to draw connections and distinctions between the two. It’s easier to build trust with readers in local reporting on things about people and places they know and can see with their own eyes. It’s easier for them to believe lies about national issues or people who are the subject of widespread misinformation campaigns. Do readers understand the through line between the reporting process and journalistic principles at the Associated Press and their local newsroom?
COVID-19 has brought the two together with life-and-death consequences. If readers don’t trust Dr. Fauci’s words about the danger of the pandemic because of what Fox News or a Facebook meme says, will they follow the mask and social distancing rules their local mayor is trying to enforce?
There’s also strong evidence that the 2020 news cycle, against a backdrop of real-life stress and grief, has caused fatigue among readers whose increasing instinct could be to shut down and tune out.
Hard-hitting journalism doesn’t have to leave readers with a feeling of hopelessness. Investigating potential solutions is one way. Another is experimenting with formats and delivery that guard against overwhelming the reader. Curating the few most important news items of the day, vs. flooding people with a nonstop river of horrible news. Using an explainer format to help people make sense of ongoing topics. Helping readers understand what’s happening today in the context of history.
So, it’s not just a question of how does our journalism have to change because of the nightmare of 2020, but also how do we adapt to how readers are feeling 9 to 12 months into a crazy, nonstop, exhausting news cycle.
Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers.