The rot at the core of the news business

Sometimes, things get worse before they get better.

New York Knicks point guard Micheal Ray Richardson (that’s how he spells his name) understood this. In 1981, he offered one of the most trenchant observations in the history of professional sports. When asked about the Knicks’ latest losing streak, Richardson said, “The ship be sinking.” When asked how bad things could get, he replied, “Sky’s the limit.”

The Knicks finished 16 games under .500 that season, but they did win a playoff series the following year. Which brings us back to the moral of this story: Sometimes, things get worse before they get better.

The same can be said of commercial journalism in the United States. Its current state is bad, and it will probably get worse in 2023. News outlets are slashing payrolls like horror movie villains, and one hedge fund appears to be fulfilling the terms of a reverse social contract in which they get everything by gutting local newsrooms and the public gets nothing.

Meanwhile, political journalists can’t shake their two-pack-a-day habit of publishing stories that use game framing, which political communication scholars Matthew P. Hitt and Kathleen Searles describe as frames that emphasize political strategy over policies and principles. So much political coverage focuses on who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, and who’s losing — despite the knowledge, as media scholar Dannagal Young explains, that this kind of framing is hazardous to the health of our democracy.

And the promise of diversity, equity, and inclusion in commercial journalism that lasted for a season has both risen and set in the east, regressing to what the Carpenters once called a crescent noon — a dreary sun that provides no warmth. This sun does not shine for Black journalists who push back against the problematic conceptions of neutral objectivity that are conceptualized and enforced by white editors and news executives. You can’t even convince commercial newsrooms in 2022 to fill out surveys that provide transparency into how equitable their newsrooms are.

There’s little reason to believe that much of this will change for the better in 2023, though some useful triage is possible. Nonprofit alternatives to commercial journalism, like the Baltimore Banner, Mississippi Today, and the Mississippi Free Press, will continue to distinguish themselves with their coverage of local communities. Also, my colleague at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, former Buffalo News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski, is doing brilliant work directing the college’s new Local News Network. Last fall, this outlet provided badly needed policy-centered and investigative reporting by student journalists on local and state elections in Maryland. But not every community has the resources necessary to sustain nonprofit journalism.

Also in the coming year, media researchers will continue to stress the need to replace game framing with a focus on what political developments mean for our democracy. They will highlight exemplars of democracy-centered framing, as we hit the start of the 2024 presidential campaign. But will political journalists resist democracy-centered framing as an unacceptable deviation from the troubled norm of objectivity?

Unions will keep pushing news organizations a little closer toward racial equity — even if that makes certain unnamed journalists who prefer that unions stay away from “broader cultural and social issues” uncomfortable. A valuable holiday gift for these unnamed journalists might be a copy of The Kerner Report, since Chapter 15 discusses at length how their industry directly relates to some very important social issues.

These are all important interventions, but the practice of journalism in the United States will continue to regress as long as what’s systemically rotten within the industry endures. And what’s rotten is commercialism — predatory and unchecked. Repairing the rot requires us to imagine a media system that isn’t centered nearly as much around profit motives — and then insist that our elected officials help to bring it about. We need this kind of imagination urgently, because any chance we have of building and sustaining a more equitable democratic society may rely on it.

Christoph Mergerson is an assistant professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

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