News Media, “New” Media, and Democracy

On Tuesday, in conjunction with the publication of a “listicle” (definition here) called “The News Today: 7 Trends in Old and New Media,” the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution hosted a forum to discuss the effect of new media on the democratic process. The findings of the self-described “millennial-baby boomer team,” authors Elaine C. Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele, were:

  1. Print newspapers are dinosaurs
  2. Hard news is in danger
  3. Television is still important
  4. And is radio
  5. News is now digital
  6. Social media allows news (and “news”) to go viral
  7. For the younger generation, news is delivered through comedy

The panelists could agree to some extent on all of the trends although with some nuanced elaborations, and agreed that they bode well for the future of democracy—for the most part. Emma Green, religion and spirituality writer and managing editor at, elaborated on the fast-paced evolution of digital journalism, which allows forms of expression and reporting to emerge and redefine themselves cyclically as traditional journalists and citizen journalists focus on communicating creatively as they vie for attention. With more choice of where to consume our news, Green believes we are becoming more “platform-agnostic,” making us better consumers in the process of filtering information for quality instead of having to rely on brand name, and the explosion of content from the democratization of reporting means that “hard news” (fact-based reporting) is not dead—it’s just the foundation upon which more analysis can be done.

Howard Fineman, global editorial director of the Huffington Post Media Group, agrees that we’re seeing the “golden age of opinionating and deconstructionism,” giving the “meta-meta-meta” example of an article in HuffPost Politics that consists of an exchange that took place on Slack (their internal work collaboration software) between a senior politics editor and senior national correspondent on how and why to report on Ben Carson’s claim that he was offered a West Point academy scholarship that does not seem to have been offered, and the implications this reporting has on his candidacy.

Fineman also supported the expansionary effects of digital journalism on the state of reporting, calling our camera-capable smartphones the most powerful journalistic tool on the planet and suggesting that “real reporting” can be rewarded through the referral process of sharing on social media that makes content go viral. Although he cautioned that we should not believe there is such a thing as hard, objective news without bias (the earliest US newspapers were explicitly partisan), he also warned of the double-edged sword that comes with filtering the news as we do, stove-piping and isolating ourselves in a “reality of a cocoon of our own devising,” iterating a concern about tunnel vision that was further echoed by Ken Bode, former national political correspondent at NBC News. He also warned of the dangerous relationship between the algorithms that allow for the sharing of social movement news that inspire citizen participation and the corporations (Google, Facebook, etc.) that create the platforms for dissemination. (Or, as E.J. Dionne, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and panel moderator, roughly paraphrased from journalist A.J. Liebling, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”)

Bode focused his critique of new media on the campaign for the 2016 presidential election, suggesting that what gets put into the national conversation has been altered by this era of soundbite and instant journalism. Presidential candidates are benefiting from the speed of passing information on (with little editing and oftentimes less research); because candidates get to retain more control over creating their own stories and media personalities (“they think they are entitled to their own facts”), Bode says, “candidates don’t want us to know them, they want to make up their own versions.” This is easier to do if journalists are spending less time profiling and more time speculating on politicians’ words and actions.

A further implication of digital journalism is in how different demographics consume their news and how they are reported on themselves. Here is an interesting Pew survey analyzed by the International Business Times that gives some idea of the audience makeup of online and TV news outlets, including political satire like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. When youth, minorities, working-class whites, etc., are all appealed to through different media, as well as represented differently, it will be difficult to discern how disruptive candidates like Trump would be to the Democratic base and to which subset in particular. (Green expressed concern for the way Christian Evangelicals are often reported on and questions the polls that show them as Trump supporters—I was dismayed none of the panelists made mention of the secular vote.)

All in all, though the panelists and report authors could cite both pros and cons for democracy of this new media age, the conclusion clearly remains a work in progress.