Mixed reaction emerged during the panel ‘#netzwende: why Trump is the best thing to happen in journalism’ organised on 6 April 2017 at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
Organised in partnership with the media start-up VOCER and moderated by its founder and Hamburg Media School Academic Director Stephan Welchert, speakers included veteran journalist Jeff Jarvis from the Graduate School of Journalism CUNY; the co-Founder of IRPI, Guia Baggi; Frederik Fischer, Chief Editor of Piqd.de; Claire Wardle from First Draft News; the founder and programme manager of Media Lab Bayern, Lina Timm; and Adam Thomas, Director of the European Journalism Centre.
“Trump is a wake-up call for journalism,” said Welchert introducing the panel, something that could be useful to “rethink journalism, […] and how the profession is conceived and funded”. He quoted Fischer when he stated that “Trump may be our Chernobyl, or Fukushima” before passing the microphone to the Piqd.de Chief Editor.
Fischer began his analysis of Trump’s impact on the press by affirming that he has always had a “love/hate relationship with the festival in Perugia” because each year he is reminded that the profession is not doing as well as it used to. “The market for quality journalism is not succeeding,” he said.
Fischer then proceeded to explain his reasoning behind the comparison between the unexpected Trump election to the presidential seat, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster: rather than adopting a completely disastrous approach to the new president, journalists should take the opportunity to explore new ways to do journalism as the nuclear disaster pushed the world to rethink and expand on renewable forms of energy. “We should be inspired to think big again,” he said.
The Chied Editor of Piqd.de suggested that one of the best possible ways to improve reporting in the future might be to foster collaboration with the public, be it through better engagement or small contribution to help keep journalism independent: “we allow for some sort of subsidy, for some public involvement.”
“Trump has brought up the disconnection between big media and the people in the rest of the country,” said Baggi at the beginning of her presentation. She explained that one of the aims of IRPI at the moment is to try and create ways to reconnect journalists with their public, stepping away from digital-only journalism to instead “go back to public spaces such as cultural or educational institutions” to make the experience more personal for the audience.
The panellists shared the idea that one of the possible justification to Trump’s election was the lack of homogenous coverage of both sides of the debate, arguing that the vote was the result of years of disenfranchisement of right-leaning voters in more rural areas, where there is a conflictual relationship with the big media based in larger cities.
“Donald Trump is a fuck of a story, but the way we reported it didn’t help the world,” Jarvis said. “There’s nothing good in the election of Donald Trump,” but conceded that, considering the current situation, Jarvis believe it would still be worth the journalists’ time to seek opportunities for good reporting. He shared with the audience the fact that journalists have a tendency to be bad listerners, resulting in the alienation of part of their readers. Many communities remain widely unreported in the United States, and so are their world view, an issue that results in deep mistrust towards mainstream journalism.
In the case of Trump, “journalists were very bad at spotting the manipulation of the conversation” that happened during the presidential campaign, at times giving misinformation the airwaves to spread around.
“Trump did not cause anything, but it just brought to light what went wrong over the past 30 years,” tuned in Lina Timm. She blamed the current media situation on the arrogance that very often plagues journalists: there is a belief in the profession that only reporters know what readers should know about, forgetting that they are now living alongside highly competitive bloggers with better audiences, more independence and a wider sphere of interest.
Bloggers do not rely on corporate support, but often follow their own rules and most especially invest time in exploring and analysing how to better improve engagement with their audience by talking to them directly: “Trump revealed how arrogant we are towards our readers, and how powerful digital-only media already are. He revealed our own arrogance to us.”
According to Timm, the best step journalists should take to overcome the struggle they are currently facing is to focus on how to bring their readers back, and explore how to build interesting start-ups that can get the audience more involved.
A dissenting voice among the panel rose in the form of Claire Wardle, who argued that international journalist should refrain from giving Trump too much coverage: “There are millions of stories we are not covering because we are obsessed with Trump.” Then she added “We shouldn’t be talking about him. The Americans are doing a great job at holding him accountable.”
Wardle is concerned about the obsessive reporting about the Trump administration, fearing a ripple effect that could normalise certain stances towards the press in authoritarian countries such as Russia or China. In particular, she worries about the ‘weaponisation’ of the ‘fake news’ label, a possible risk for the credibility of dissenting international journalism: “We should be worried. He has done nothing good for journalism, and we should be careful.”
“We’re on the cusp of a new philanthropic era of journalism. Is it a coincidence?” asked Thomas reaching the conclusion of the panel. Journalists should focus on re-gaining the trust of the audience by reclaiming their role as ‘architects of trust’ tasked with the analysis of all the data that is now freely available in digital form: “Journalists will have to learn new stuff.”