April 20, 2018

Center for Media at Risk Launches as Bulwark for Journalism against Global Political Intimidation

Barbie Zelizer, PhD, director of the Center for Media at Risk, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

The Center for Media at Risk is the brainchild of Barbie Zelizer, Ph.D, professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania. The aim of the Center is to bring together media practitioners and scholars to address the real threats to the journalism profession—ranging from killings and kidnappings to trolling and hacking. The 2016 presidential election spurred Zelizer to think about how the media needs to transform itself in a wholesale fashion. The Center itself officially launches this month, highlighted by a two-day conference this weekend featuring representatives from academia, digital and print journalism, entertainment and documentary. We spoke to Zelizer as she was making the final preparations for the conference.

What were the forces and factors that compelled you to create the Center for Media at Risk?

Barbie Zelizer: Well, I spent the academic year of 2017 abroad. I was in Finland for the year. And that meant that during Trump's election, I was seeing everything from afar—and that was good. I mean, it was bad in the sense that I felt that I was out of everything and I was missing key pieces of this horrible new reality. But it was good because other Fellows with me were from the Baltic States. They were from Poland, from Russia, from Lithuania, from Latvia, from Hungary. And they basically turned to me and said, What did you expect? How did you not figure that this was going to happen? And it started me thinking that with our sense of exceptionalism in this country, particularly as it relates to political realities and media practice, we've always assumed that we’re above it—and we’re not.

So, given the fact that so many of us are walking around saying, "Do we matter anymore? Why do people not appreciate the work that we do?"—and I would say that that's both media practitioners as well as academics—it struck me that this was a moment in which we really had to be creating opportunities for people unlike each other to be speaking more actively and more productively with each other. So that's really how it came about: I planned this from the far reaches of Finland to create a forum in which media practitioners and scholars can strategize with each other about what to do when media practitioners fall under political intimidation.

There are a couple of ways in which this is a little bit different than any other quasi-similar endeavor out there. One, we're thinking globally. We're thinking, Why is it that the courts get involved in certain countries and harassment techniques [are practiced] in other countries? We're thinking across media platforms, so it's not just documentary. It's also journalism and it's entertainment and it's digital practice for as much as those can be distinct from each other. So not to get all of these different forms speaking with each other and practitioners in each of these different entities aware of what's going on across the board, I think, is a real mistake.

And thirdly, the interest here is starting from the opposite side of what we think of when we think about political intimidation. And by that I mean it's really starting from the lower end of political intimidation, the most discreet instances, rather than starting at the high end, so that it's not that it's not important that journalists get killed or tortured, but that it's as important when they get harassed online. And I think that we've made a mistake by gauging political intimidation by going for the extreme forms, and in so doing we let the more discreet forms of political intimidation make their way without us even noticing.

When you spoke at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Loughborough University in the UK last September, you noted that in the immediate wake of the 2016 election, there was excessive theorizing about what needs to change. What needed to change, and what has changed since the election?

Not enough. Look, there's no question that a lot needs to change. There's no question that major institutions got this wrong. Politicians got it wrong. Pollsters got it wrong. Journalists got it wrong. Pundits got it wrong. Nobody saw this coming in the way that they should have. And the question then becomes, Okay, so what do you do post facto? What do you do now that he’s in power, now that he's doing exactly what any authoritarian regime would do?

Well, what we've been doing is we've been whining a lot. We've been hearing a lot of folks lament about why things aren't different, how outraged they get when Trump does X or Y violation of some ethics somewhere. And I think that this really speaks to a failure to reinvest in a different sense of what institutions mean—at least in the United States, if not globally.

First of all, when things go bad in politics, things go bad in the media as well because they're intricately connected. But second of all, I think that we have for so long held on to this pristine notion that somehow in the United States we're above all of this, that it takes a major reset to go back to the beginning. And so it's a failure of imagination. It's a failure to consider what might be the least comfortable, but possibly the most necessary, way to offer a reset.

And we haven't reset. There are certainly good examples, but the media by and large are still in this "why did this happen" moment without taking proactive action: Changes, changes in media routine, changes in production formula, changes in any of the various aspects of media practice in all of its different platforms that could begin to suggest that we have to fundamentally rethink.

This isn't a Band Aid job. We are suffering so badly that we almost need a body cast at this point, and I don't think that we've seen that. Very early after the election, in January 2017, Reuters put out a missive to its reporters where it said, "We know how to cover the Trump Administration because we cover the Trump Administration every place else in the world." And then it noted places like Malaysia and China and Thailand, and it was basically saying, "Any place where there is an authoritarian-driven or solid authoritarian regime, we know what to do. We don't trust the sources in official quarters. We don't do most of our news-gathering by focusing on official briefings or high-level quarters. We do a lot more investigative journalism.

"We know how to cover it," Reuters told its reporters. "We just have to recognize that now the United States is among that list of countries." And that has not happened yet, and we're now at a year and a half in and we're still seeing a lot of reactivity in the media. We're still seeing a lot of incremental pacing toward change. We're still seeing basically what I would call Band-Aid solutions rather than wide, sweeping overhauls of the ways in which different media platforms work.

And until we get there, we're not going to be in a place, as media practitioners or as media scholars or any of the various media assist organizations and associations that are out there, where people are going to look to us and say, "You can lead the way." So the point that there is such a fundamental lack of credibility attached to media practice and to media scholarship is understandable. But I don't think that we’ve done what we need to do to recoup that.

It seems, though, that in a year and a half that the disruptive forces have really coalesced in a big way—fake news, alt facts, Fox News, Sinclair and social media. Hasn't that force been a disruptor to change in journalism?

Sure. But this is what authoritarianism does: It keeps you off guard. It makes sure that you're not paying attention to what you would initially intended to pay attention to because you keep getting distracted. Fake news has been part of the new environment since we first called it news. There have always been forms of fake news and misinformation and disinformation. The question that I think we need to be focused on is, Why have media practitioners and media scholars allowed fake news to become so much the focus that we're not dealing with everything else that’s going on?

So yeah, it's horrifying to watch what's going on with Sinclair. I'm not minimizing the issues here and I'm not minimizing the disruptiveness. But I think that those disruptions actually make it much more mandatory and much more central and much more critical for a response that sidelines them, rather than plays into their pacing.

And what we're doing now is playing into their pacing. Reporters on Sinclair Broadcasting all say the same thing, focusing on how the reporters are parroting the lines of Sinclair Broadcasting. I don't know that we need all that detail so much as we need a response to offset it. But the media have not done that. And media scholars, I will say, it's hard to find a discussion of journalism these days that doesn't include a focus on fake news.

So when you combine that with the fact that fake news has always been around, that too should tell you, Well, what's reactive and what's proactive here?

It seems that as a countervailing force, you're certainly part of the mix; I'm thinking also of Doc Society's Safe + Secure, IDA's Enterprise Fund, the Center for Media and Social Impact, UC Berkeley School of Journalism. There seems to be a countervailing coalescence at play here that's encouraging.

You're absolutely right. This is not to say that there aren't attempts. But by and large, the fact that you can list five different entities at a point in time where we are certainly at a low in my lifetime, that, to me, says that there’s not enough going on. We should be the rule. These entities, these kinds of interventions, should be happening every place, not just in a handful of places.

And if you get back to journalism, you're even thinking, Okay, so where is the good journalism happening? Well, it's happening in long-form journalism—long-form news, Politico, Slate, The Atlantic. That's where you go to get the kind of news that we need to be trying to make headway with what's going on, at least in the journalistic environment. But how many people read long-form journalism?

So until the more conventional legacy, mainstream news outlets begin to ape at least in some form what's going on—what are the impulses that are driving the journalistic record in long-form news?—I don't think we have a chance in hell. It's not to say that there aren't initiatives that are beginning to look at this, that have been looking at this, but they are too few and far between. There's no question that they don’t have the kind of heft yet that they need to have in order to make things shift measurably.

I actually look at documentaries the very same way I look at long-form journalism and the very same way that I look at podcasts, which obviously are also a form of documentary. They're all ways of engaging with a problem or a topic or an issue that allows more nuance and more depth. I think that the growth of documentary as a response to the precarity that's been going on, certainly within the news industry, is enormous.

And I would argue also that The Independent and things like Netflix and Hulu in entertainment have the same kind of industrial input. But the question is how to get people to attend them, because they are in-depth. So we'll still go back to the issue of media literacy. We have to go back to schooling US citizens about how important it is to engage deeply and engage at length with an issue, rather than just through a headline.

I think the question of length that makes documentary and long-form journalism so attuned to being able to get at the nuanced complications of political intimidation today is precisely what turns off most of the public, and that's a problem.

But in the OTT space, there are a lot more opportunities for short-form journalism, particularly with The New York Times Op-Docs, Field of Vision, Witness or The Atlantic. Wouldn't short-form journalism be the kind of work that people are paying attention to?

Yes, you're right. Short-form docs are a way to go. But then the question becomes, Can short-form documentaries cover enough of the picture? And I think often they can. But more important is, Can they whet the appetite for more short-form docs—or for longer docs? And that I don't know that we know yet.

And that's why really it is a question of media literacy. It is a question that people need to learn that it is part of their duties as citizens to seek out information and to seek out information that doesn't come easily, to seek out information from multiple sources. We have never had a kind of regimen for media literacy in this country, and it shows.

Going into the conference, what are your goals and desired outcomes?

Our goals are really to create engagement and community and support and intervention—all this stuff that goes into strategizing. They're really about creating a forum in which folks can continue having a conversation that will allow them to continue speaking to each other regularly and productively.

So whether it's through resident visitors or through programming, workshops, lectures and exhibits, or whether it's through research that comes out of projects and overviews and reports and podcasts, the idea is to create a go-to place in which folks can be coming together about aspects of political intimidation and keeping the conversation going. Because unless this continues and builds, we don't have a chance in hell.

I do not suggest that the Center for Media at Risk can do this alone. I think the Center for Media Risk, together with things like the IDA Enterprise Fund, CMSI, Safe + Secure—all of those initiatives are about trying to keep a discursive flow that will help us to understand what media intimidation looks like and how it can be resisted, in different industries, at different junctures in the production process, in different places around the globe. So it's just really about generating fundamental awareness that will be both ongoing and productive.

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.