Altercation: why journalism does not convey the threat to democracy

Guest author for this week’s Altercation is Caitlin Petre, assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, who recently published a book called All the news to click on. The book, which examines how audience measurement is reshaping journalism in the United States, originally caught my attention following a review in Jacobin by Victor Pickard, who noted, “In short, we ignore the death by metric of the news media at our peril.

To improve information, focus on the working conditions of journalists

By Caitlin Petre

The American press has recently come under fire for failing to take seriously the increasingly authoritarian flavor of right-wing politics and the attendant threats to our democracy. Much of the fury is justified: when one of the two main political parties becomes fundamentally anti-democratic, journalists’ longstanding affinity for “balance” inevitably benefits would-be autocrats. And if journalists are doing essential parts of their job wrong, we can (and should) condemn it loud and clear.

But we might as well think about Why That may be the case. What is driving current media failures?

Many critics point the finger at traditional journalistic standards, and for good reason: some of the problems are rooted in the values ​​and professional habits of American journalism. As early as the 1970s, newsroom ethnographers observed that journalists wrote with two goals in mind: to avoid being accused of political bias and to impress other journalists. Both trends persist today. Nervousness about being perceived as biased has driven the bilateralism that has too often characterized Trump’s coverage. Meanwhile, coverage of the Build Back Better bill exemplified insular trends in journalism, providing a play-by-play of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s objections rather than explaining the actual content of the legislation and its implications for people. Americans.

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Examining journalists’ professional values ​​and habits of mind can help explain why news so often falls short of what democracy needs. But it’s not enough. We must also remember that journalism is work and journalists are workers. In their book on creative work, cultural sociologists David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker argue that “bad work”, that is, boring, precarious, isolating, excessive or low-paid work, is more likely to produce poor quality cultural products. Unsurprisingly, this is the opposite of “good work”, meaning work that is fairly paid, safe, self-reliant and interesting. If we want to understand why journalists create so much information that has so little civic value, we need to look closely at the conditions under which they work.

As a sociologist interested in the evolution of journalism in the digital age, I spent years doing just that. For my book All the news to click on, I conducted observations and interviews at The New York Times, Gawker Media (before a lawsuit bankrupted it), and Chartbeat, a tech startup specializing in creating real-time web analytics for newsrooms. I’ve found that digital journalists are often subject to the kinds of production quotas and work speed-ups that are more typically associated with a factory or call center. This intensification of information work is facilitated by the distribution of analysis tools such as Chartbeat,, Quantcast and Google Analytics, which allow managers to calculate precisely the traffic that each editor brings to an information site. in the form of page views, unique visitors, minutes spent by readers and many other metrics. These tallies are increasingly influencing how journalists’ job performance is assessed: high traffic can lead to a bonus or promotion, while consistently low traffic can jeopardize your work.

Rather than resisting this kind of data-driven work discipline, journalists often become addicted to the roller coaster of validation and disappointment that such real-time analytics provide. Many become dedicated, even compulsive players of what I call the traffic game, pushing themselves to work ever harder to break their own traffic records or those of their co-workers.

How could these working conditions make the news worse? The easy answer is what we might call the Clickbait explanation: traffic drives journalists to produce content that “will do numbers”, and that content tends to be heavy on cats and Kardashians and light on stories of fund.

But the Clickbait explanation assumes that journalists know exactly what types of stories will drive traffic. The truth is more complicated, as I learned when I interviewed and observed reporters at Gawker. Working under intense time pressure and beholden to the whims of Facebook’s mysterious and ever-changing algorithm, Gawker’s editors expressed a great deal of uncertainty as to what, exactly, would attract high traffic. As Andrea, a writer (who, like all of my interviewees, was given a pseudonym) said, “Anyone who tells you they’ve figured out the secret to going viral is probably bullshit.”

Writers have protected themselves against these uncertain and highly stressful conditions by striving to produce an ever-increasing volume of publications. On sites with large audiences like Gawker, virtually any post was guaranteed to get at least a few thousand unique visitors, contributing to a writer’s monthly counts. And a few lucky posts might even become traffic hits. Eddie, a writer, compared his job to playing the lottery: “You pick your numbers and you’re diligent about them, and the more lottery tickets you buy, the more chances you have of winning big.”

In recent years, academics and journalists have lamented the rise of “churnalism” or the “hamster wheel” of digital news, in which journalists are asked to produce more and more content with less and less of resources.

The high-volume releases took a toll on Eddie’s mental health; he told me he talks to his circulation therapist regularly. It also had a major opportunity cost:[Traffic] forces me to produce more,” he explained. “However, producing more, blogging more, maintaining the number of posts necessarily means that I don’t take the time to work on the longest, slowest and most flagged features.” In other words, the traffic game discourages journalists like Eddie from creating the kind of thoughtful, context-rich reporting that could help audiences understand political and social complexities. Moreover, as media scholar Mike Ananny has argued, a healthy public sphere needs journalists who can not only provide a voice, but also a space for people to listen, absorb and reflect. . With its relentless emphasis on novelty and quantity, the traffic game punishes the kind of strategic silences that could enrich civic life.

Eddie is not alone. In recent years, academics and journalists have lamented the rise of “churnalism” or the “hamster wheel” of digital news, in which journalists are asked to produce more and more content with less and less of resources, and therefore end up relying too much on press releases, electronic copy or aggregation. The growing concentration of media and the increasing share of media companies owned by hedge funds and private equity firms, which tend to focus on short-term profits, have only made matters worse.

There is no doubt that journalism is due – frankly, behind – in determining how its standards, values ​​and practices might best support the diverse democratic audience it claims to serve. But relentless production pressures, heightened by traffic measures, make it all too tempting to cling to some of the profession’s worst habits. For journalism to take the kind of “pro-democracy” direction that many critics of the press are calling for, working conditions in the industry must improve.

There are reasons to hope that such improvements are possible. The shift high profile news organizations have made towards subscriptions in recent years appears to be easing the daily traffic pressure in these newsrooms (although questions remain as to whether this model is broadly scalable and how it will affect the socio-economic and racial diversity of news audiences). Another bright spot is the wave of unionization that began with Gawker in 2015 and has since swept across dozens of digital newsrooms. With bargaining demands ranging from pay equity and diverse hiring initiatives to prohibition of traffic quotas and guarantees of editorial autonomy, many of these unions have demonstrated an understanding that working conditions in newsrooms and the civic value of news are inextricably linked. Anyone concerned about the current state of the news and the future of democracy should take note.

If you want to know more about Caitlin, here she is on Brian Stelter’s CNN Reliable Sources podcast.


So today is my birthday. It’s not a big birthday. It doesn’t end in a zero or even a 5. But for the past few years I’ve been using one of the few non-evil aspects of Facebook to ask people to contribute whatever they can to an organization that reflects my values. . as well as all: T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights). If you want to know more about them, here’s the band’s site, here’s their donation page, and here’s my Facebook page in case you want to donate money to them and pretend on Facebook that I have generous friends ( sheesh). ”

Finally, in keeping with this week’s anniversary theme, here’s The Ramones with Mr. Burns; here is Marilyn Monroe with JFK; here and this is Loudon Wainwright III; here’s the great Stevie Wonder singing about Martin Luther King Jr. (whose birthday is the day after mine), and here’s Bono and Edge singing it too; this is BB King; this is Jimi Hendrix; here is Elvis, and here, of course, are the Beatles! (Collect and save for all your “friends”.)