Journalism is as important today as it has ever been. As societies grow and become both more complex and more interconnected, citizens need professionals who can chronicle developments, make sense of what is happening, and present information in a truthful and clear way. However, although the central needs addressed by journalism have not changed a great deal in centuries, the ways in which journalists have gone about addressing those needs have changed considerably as a result of different economic, political, social, technological, and professional shifts.
This book is designed to help us understand those changes and to imagine new futures for U.S. journalism — futures in which it can serve as an even more useful tool for promoting a well-functioning society. But, before we can imagine new futures, we must take a step back and examine the institution of U.S. journalism through a critical and in-depth lens. This book aims to offer just that. It provides a conceptual foundation for understanding the development, logic, and practice of journalism in the United States; describes some of the key challenges, tensions, and opportunities it has faced, is facing, and will likely face; and offers guidance to help individuals develop the skills needed to engage in impactful journalism.
Unit I establishes a conceptual foundation for understanding journalism. This requires defining terms like “news” and “journalism,” and reckoning with implications of the fact that such terms mean different things to different people. For example, if a person considers something to be “journalism” (rather than just simple “news”), they may be more willing to accept its author’s version of events. This unit also explores the broad constellation of entities involved in journalism, such as its social actors (e.g., journalists and software developers), technological actants (e.g., news recommendation algorithms), and audiences (e.g., news consumers and policymakers). Finally, the unit illustrates the rather large array of potential journalistic activities involved in the practice of journalism.
Unit II introduces multiple theoretical frameworks for understanding the potential impacts of journalism. It begins by discussing media dependency theory, which helps situate journalism within a broader system of information and identifies the conditions that make some people more dependent on journalism to make sense of the world. It then evaluates framing theory, agenda-setting theory, and priming theory. These three frameworks offer sociological and psychological explanations for how news content can impact individuals’ evaluations of, and attitudes toward, a topic or issue. They are also useful in illustrating some of the limits of journalism’s impacts on individuals and on society. The unit concludes with an examination of the phenomena of news avoidance and fatigue, helping to explain why some people choose to opt out of consuming journalism.
Unit III flips the script by introducing different theoretical frameworks that help explain why journalistic content looks the way it does. The unit begins by describing the Hierarchy of Influences Model, which is a useful framework for describing the many forces that affect the news content that audiences see, hear, and read. It then examines U.S. journalistic culture and American news values, which shape how journalists think, act, and legitimize themselves to their peers and to society. The unit then critically evaluates the notions of truth, bias, and neutrality by highlighting that facts are not ‘natural’ things that just ‘exist’ and underscoring the value of truth-seeking in journalism. The unit concludes by examining the gender, geographical, political, and racial biases that exist within the institution of U.S. journalism.
Unit IV explores the economic aspects of journalism. It begins by chronicling the commodification of news in the United States and discussing the role that advertising has played in subsidizing journalism over the past century — a role that it is arguably no longer able to play as effectively. The unit then examines the impacts of audience measurement, highlighting how new technologies have enabled broader and more immediate quantification of audience wants. It then describes the influence of third-party platforms (e.g., Apple News) on journalism, highlighting the structural roles they now play as intermediaries in the information ecosystem. The unit concludes by describing two alternative economic models for supporting journalism: non-profit journalism and state-supported journalism.
Unit V centers on journalistic audiences, or the people who consume journalism (and occasionally participate in its production or distribution). The unit begins by examining the increasing fragmentation of a mass audience into many smaller audiences as a result of diverging media consumption habits. This, in turn, has resulted in the development of an attention economy, which involves increased competition from an ever-growing list of potential media options and promotes specialization. The unit then evaluates some of the active roles that audiences can play in journalism, such as by contributing user-generated content (e.g., uploading pictures of news events to social media). Then, active strategies for involving audiences are examined through the journalistic practices of crowdsourcing and ambient journalism, wherein journalists turn to the wisdom of the crowds to produce better journalism (which doesn’t always work out that way). Finally, the unit examines the darker side of audience participation as well as the increasing violence being enacted against U.S. journalists.
Unit VI provides a whirlwind tour of three and a half centuries of U.S. journalism. It begins by describing colonial journalism, which was vastly different from today’s journalism not only in format but in focus, manner of expression, and funding. Then, it describes journalism in the 19th century, identifying some of the social, economic, and technological factors that helped popularize the mass circulation of journalistic media. The unit’s final chapters examine journalism in the 20th century, underscoring that the cultural emphasis on neutrality and objectivity in U.S. journalism is a historically recent phenomenon and that the industry’s recent economic challenges are due in no small part to the exceptional pace of technological development in recent decades.
Unit VII offers a primer on the legal and ethical issues that commonly arise in the practice of journalism. The unit begins by tracing the roots of the First Amendment and describing its centrality to the freedoms that journalists have in the United States. The next three chapters focus on an array of judicial decisions that helped define the limits of those First Amendment protections. These include limits to access, anonymity, incitement, libel, and privacy intrusions. It also includes safeguards against government censorship of journalism, which are among the most protective in the world. The unit concludes by describing the most popular code of journalistic ethics in the United States and outlining some best practices for engaging in ethical journalism.
Unit VIII describes some of the considerations and skills involved in preparing news stories. It begins by providing a schema for categorizing different types of journalism, illustrating its many potential forms. The unit then shows how U.S. journalism has maintained a role for subjective opinion pieces, such as editorials, op-eds, and columns, and describes its historical separation from so-called “straight news.” It then offers tips for identifying story ideas, such as by encouraging one’s curiosity, developing a niche, and simply consuming a lot of journalism. The unit concludes with an explication of misinformation and disinformation, terms that help us better capture the range of inaccurate information that pollute information ecosystems.
Unit IX examines the practices of news sourcing and verification. It begins by conceptualizing news sources, examining the exchanges of power that are involved in the act of news sourcing, and describing common news sourcing biases. The next four chapters focus on tips for identifying appropriate sources and developing a well-rounded mix of sources; maximizing the likelihood that a source will agree to an interview; developing interview questions that are simple, clear, well-focused, and open-ended; and conducting interviews in a way that helps elicit useful information for a journalistic story. The unit concludes by assessing the value of verification in journalism and offering tips for verifying information efficiently.
Unit X describes the process of producing news stories, focusing on written journalism. It begins by describing the lead and nut graf of stories; these collectively serve as the entry point to a story, and they can be the difference between a story that gets read and one that is skipped. The unit then describes different narrative structures for journalistic stories, from the commonly used inverted pyramid to the accordion, and offers some tips for when to select a particular structure. It then provides guidance for when to directly or indirectly quote a source, and how to properly attribute the information according to U.S. journalistic conventions. The unit then offers some tips for how to effectively integrate quantitative information into journalistic stories that tend to privilege anecdotes and qualitative accounts. Finally, the unit describes the practice of solutions journalism, which aims to present potential responses to social problems through evidence-based reporting that examines the strengths and weaknesses of specific interventions.
Unit XI concludes the book by considering the future of U.S. journalism. The unit begins by examining the development of social media, which has transformed news distribution and created new possibilities for news production. Journalists today use social media to gauge public interest and sentiment, keep tabs on the competition, identify story ideas, find and verify sources, and promote and distribute their work. However, the rapid growth of social media, and the central role they play in today’s digital infrastructure, has meant that journalistic outlets are becoming increasingly dependent on platforms that they do not control. The unit then examines the development of computational journalism, underscoring that it is not just a technological phenomenon but also an epistemological one, with the notion of computational thinking becoming more and more valuable. The book concludes with an assessment of artificial intelligence in journalism, describing how AI is already used in some fashion in every stage of news production, from coming up with a story idea to distributing news content. Although machines are becoming more intelligent and playing increasingly large roles in journalism, humans will likely remain at the center of news production for many years to come. The work they do, and the ways they go about it, will look different, though.
I hope this book proves useful to aspiring and experienced journalists alike, as well as to people who are simply curious about the institution of U.S. journalism. I also hope that it inspires you, the reader, to want to be a part of the solution to the social challenges we presently face in the U.S. (and those we will face in the years to come). I believe in a bright future for journalism, and I hope you will help imagine it with me.