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"Apocalyptic Journalism" and Why We Need Reporters to Face the Reality of Our Crumbling Society

The best journalists in our tradition have seen themselves as responsible for telling stories about the struggle for social justice.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Olivier Le Moal

 
 
 
 

For those who care about a robust human presence on the planet, the 21st century has been characterized by really bad news that keeps getting really, really worse.

Whatever one’s evaluation of high-energy/high-technology civilization (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), it’s now clear that we are hitting physical limits; we cannot expect to maintain contemporary levels of consumption that draw down the ecological capital of the planet at rates dramatically beyond replacement levels. It unrealistic to imagine that we can go on treating the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We have no choice but to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also should recognize the need for a journalism of collapse. Everyone understands that economic changes are forcing a refashioning of the journalism profession. It’s long past time for everyone to pay attention to how multiple, cascading ecological crises should be changing professional journalism’s mission in even more dramatic fashion.

It’s time for an apocalyptic journalism (that takes some explaining; a lot more on that later).

The Basics of Journalism: Ideals and Limitations

With the rapid expansion of journalistic-like material on the Internet, it’s especially crucial to define “real” journalism. In a democratic system, ideally journalism is a critical, independent source of information, analysis, and the varied opinions needed by citizens who want to play a meaningful role in the formation of public policy. The key terms are “critical” and “independent”—to fulfill the promise of a free press, journalists must be willing to critique not only specific people and policies, but the systems out of which they emerge, and they must be as free as possible from constraining influences, both overt and subtle. Also included in that definition of journalism is an understanding of democracy—“a meaningful role in the formation of public policy”—as more than just lining up to vote in elections that offer competing sets of elites who represent roughly similar programs. Meaningful democracy involves meaningful participation.

This discussion will focus on what is typically called mainstream journalism, the corporate-commercial news media. These are the journalists who work for daily newspapers, broadcast and cable television, and the corporately owned platforms on the Internet and other digital devices. Although there are many types of independent and alternative journalism of varying quality, the vast majority of Americans continue to receive the vast majority of their news from these mainstream sources, which are almost always organized as large corporations and funded primarily by advertising.

Right-wing politicians and commentators sometimes refer to the mainstream media as the “lamestream,” implying that journalists are comically incompetent and incapable of providing an accurate account of the world, likely due to a lack of understanding of conservative people and their ideas. While many elite journalists may be dismissive of the cultural values of conservatives, this critique ignores the key questions about journalism’s relationship to power. Focusing on the cultural politics of individual reporters and editors—pointing out that they tend to be less religious and more supportive of gay and women’s rights than the general public, for example—diverts attention from more crucial questions about how the institutional politics of corporate owners and managers shapes the news and keeps mainstream journalism within a centrist/right conventional wisdom.

The managers of commercial news organizations in the United States typically reject that claim by citing the unbreachable “firewall” between the journalistic and the business sides of the operation, which is supposed to allow journalists to pursue any story without interference from the corporate front office. This exchange I had with a newspaper editor captures the ideology: After listening to my summary of this critique of the U.S. commercial news media system, this editor (let’s call him Joe) told me proudly: “No one from corporate headquarters has ever called me to tell me what to run in my paper.” I asked Joe if it were possible that he simply had internalized the value system of the folks who run the corporation (and by extension, the folks who run most of the world), and therefore they never needed to give him direct instructions. He rejected that, reasserting his independence from any force outside his newsroom.

 
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