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Fifth Wave Journalism: The “Divided America” Narrative is Too Simple

The moment that sparked the conversation.

Passing election cycles have highlighted a media narrative of two sides that just simply cannot get along. In an effort to be balanced and focused, our coverage reflects a both sides storytelling approach. However, the long-term damage of “both sides” may not be worth the short term gratification of presumed lack of bias.

Today, the United States finally reconciled it’s national tension as news outlets announced their consensus that former Vice President Joe Biden would ascend to the presidency. With him, his running mate and current California Senator Kamala Harris.

Now, as the national focus shifts away from the Presidential race and closer to a Georgia runoff, the campaign and the communities that supported them will begin to analyze who exactly gave them this election. It’s no surprise that in states like Florida, we handily note Latinx cultures rocked by dictatorships and autocratic governments shift the demographic vote.

However, this election cycle made clear the power of one particular voting block in a unmistakable way (once again). Black and brown women powered the democratic vote, tossing traditionally republican held areas like Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina into tossup status alongside Florida. Increased voter turnout came through organizations like March for Our Lives and Fair Fight, mirrored by voter registration campaigns in the GOP.

This evening, as confetti and fireworks streak across Delaware and major metropolitan areas, it becomes important to question why, exactly, the election narrative didn’t spin out as expected. Past the polls and punditry, the focus now shifts to a clearer question of ethical action by journalists. Is a balanced approach to political reporting sustainable?

Let’s test the approach, and it’s foil, in this blogpost. And lets do it using the clearest example of what this next wave of journalistic storytelling might reflect.

Race in America

While I’ve said, over the course of several blogposts and articles, that the news has a bias problem, racial issues seem to be the easiest way of highlighting just how deeply the issue runs. On the surface, news organizations directly confront bias with a number of writing techniques, including allowing some clear fallacies. Specifically, the genetic, red herring, and moral equivalency.

While writers rarely (not always, as seen here) avoid actually using these fallacies, they make the mistake of allowing false claims to go unchecked. When we take, for example, continuing, unbroken coverage of a presidential press conference strewn with lies, you either intentionally or unintentionally provide the public with that misinformation. We also do the same when regurgitating content that has a clear inaccuracy without limitation.

If we just take this single example, we see a slippery slope unfold. By saying that a number of ballots cast by a primarily black, female population for a democratic candidate were “illegal,” we consequently connect that demographic to illegality. And this is not a mistake that can be easily corrected through newsroom action. It takes forethought, consideration, and passionate care for your audience that (should be/is) found in the populist age of journalism

More tangibly, we look at coverage this blog has discussed unabashedly of protests in the United States. When we cover protests, especially those connected to protected minority groups, size and action are not the story. On the contrary, they are the least wholistic picture of what is going on. Even a slight zoom in on property damage during BLM protests uncovered conversations that America may not have wanted to hear, but that drove the conversation.

So, what happens when journalists, especially in politics, don’t dig down to this second layer? We have an understanding that, by and large, political journalism and communications is a whiter-than-not space. BIPOC people make up less newsrooms due to the pandemic, and find themselves fighting for a shrinking number of positions. Newspapers, digital outlets, and broadcasting giants alike find themselves reusing the same few black sources, the same few black guests, and the same few black journalists in their goals.

But let’s complicate it a bit more.

Humanity in America

Around the world, BIPOC, religious and LGBTQ+ minorities find themselves persecuted for visible attributes. We have to acknowledge that fact, so we may better address what a disagreement means in this group. More specifically, we want to digest to what degree we will allow space for disregard of one’s humanity.

Let’s look back at the coverage of the BLM movement as it intersected with queer identity this summer. While many came together to discuss variations on police reform, defunding, and disbanding police departments, you may not have heard cogent voices for that argument. In this space, the media played an interesting, somewhat consequential gatekeeping role. Comments that the media allowed to slip through, and an unwillingness to broaden conversation, permitted a more uneven dialogue for protestors.

Meanwhile, conservative outlets found themselves exemplifying some far right mentalities. Some made room for guests who intentionally fearmongered, or otherwise misinformed the public about the more robust forms of the discussion. Others pivoted to left leaning bias commentary with protestors, and promulgated a brink-of-anarchy mindset with the police as the last stop gap between justice and peace.

Both groups, whether or not we want to admit it, did a great job of continuing their institutional biases. They didn’t let proud, more radical scholars come on and defend crucial points, with most hosts and voices blandly stating that no one would take action in favor of police disbanding.

We mirror this onto political action by conservative or liberals, and the way that political bodies determine value. In these cases, journalists must acknowledge minority status in the black and queer communities without losing ground. More concisely, journalists cant afford a middle ground or gradient. These groups, outside of their actions, are more than just protected classes. They are people, and their humanity is the center of their civil momentum.

Without a set of decision makers willing to acknowledge that, or people representative of the groups affected telling the story, you get a sense of what is right and wrong from a privileged position. And, though our current age of populist journalism would seek to dispel the notion of journalistic privilege as a reality, recognizing that fact helps to achieve some ethical goal setting.

So what should newsrooms be doing?

  • Water down your stories.
    • This is an overly simplified check, but an important one. When covering political and social movements, water down your story and check yourself. Are you drafting a story that, upon reflection, will just objectify an entire people group? When you are publishing your story, are you leaving out key context that would prevent abject stereotyping? These are questions that, while never getting a 100% perfect answer, should be the first and last editorial question you make. From a small town traffic ticket story on a slow crime beat to a multi million person women’s march on a global scale, you must ask yourself if you are promoting an ism (racism/sexism/heterosexism/classism/etc…) by publishing your story, and what negative impact it will have on not just your audience, but who your audience interacts with.
  • Keep minority groups on staff and in key decision making positions.
    • This is also overly simplified, but needs to be said over and over again. You, dearest newsreader, need to have a diverse set of sources, and a diverse staff to represent the news as it will be. Black politicos and black journalists by and large have prognosticated a people group’s will, and organizations like the Black News Channel are already representing a national reality — all news, including political news, will need to reflect black and brown communities or risk being left in the dust.
  • Provide your organization with space to challenge institutions.
    • I don’t have much to add here. Journalists have relied on institutions like law enforcement and government organizations, treating their words as gospel at times. That cannot stand for much longer organizationally. With the rise of citizen journalism, news brands now run the risk of discovering a lie by being at the point of impact, rather than trusting government reasoning and retelling. Thanks to this wave of journalism, and the Trump administration, news outlets have begun to pick up on that.
  • Acknowledge journalistic privilege. (not the legal one, but that too!)
    • Journalists have to just be real with themselves here. Acknowledging that this job comes with a number of privileges is the first step to acknowledging the next wave of journalistic action. This is a self awareness that the average American isn’t paid to stay abreast on the community, isn’t paid to participate in the political process, and isn’t granted expedited response in conversation with government entities. Reporters privilege, while just one example of a compendium of social privileges isn’t worth losing track of. Your intersectional identity includes this reality as a journalists protected by a constitutional amendment.
  • Be open to academic self-criticism. (Read a journal article about news, communications, or political science!)
    • Keep up to date on what the academic world of communication thinks about how journalists write. Maybe you don’t need to read a journal article daily or commit to a study weekly, but research in journalism and communications is for you as a professional too. It should inform every news organization in the same way. Media reporters and critics should read this one in triplicate. Read some academic articles. Read some research. Do not just read the news.

Remember, these are just suggestions. Some of many that you should consider. Create a twitter list of black journalists and writers, diversify your sources, and look into your outlet. Ask yourself what stories differ from the rest in a tangible way. Who didn’t go to college? Who didn’t attend a tier one school? Who’s name is hard to pronounce for you? Who looks different from you?

Then ask any of them if you are telling the story right.

A Concluding Thought

A lot of generic terms aside, I wanted to include an addendum. Journalism is shifting rapidly, and a number of the shifts we have seen were present in the previous four waves of journalism. Populist journalism, the wave we are currently in, is a wonderful outward facing tradition that journalism took on in 5 years or so. However, journalism is moving fast, and may even be cresting into it’s fifth wave alongside budding journalists like those in student news right now.

These thoughts are reflective of the thoughts that could be outlined by incoming fifth wave journalists that I would posit are context-concious. So, in an effort to preclude any writing moving forward, I will likely differentiate this modicum as being reflective of the Context-Concious era of journalism, or fifth-wave journalism. My questions abound, and more research is needed, but I am excited to have a word-and-concept that steps away from the participatory, crisis, platform, and populists areas accordingly.

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