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Jay Rosen looks at what happened to journalism norms during the Trump years

A “both sides” model of news coverage still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism, writes Rosen in his blog, PressThink, adding: “But it is falling apart.”

President Donald Trump delivering an address from the Rose Garden at the White House on November 13.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Former President Donald Trump
Norms are powerful, until they aren’t. They aren’t enforced by law (except when there happens to be a law enacted enforcing one of them). So, when someone violates a norm and gets away with it, the norm is weakened or even goes away.

You don’t need me to tell you this, but the rise of Donald Trump overturned a great many norms of how we expect grown-ups in general, and especially those who aspire to high elective office, to behave.

Norms are also extremely powerful in journalism. The big norm for about a century has been the objectivity norm, under which the vast majority of working reporters were expected to keep their opinions to themselves, stick to verifiable facts and, if writing about issues or controversies, talk to responsible people on all sides and assemble a story reflecting multiple views, endorsing none of them.

That journalistic system is about done. It had been on the ropes before Donald Trump, but he delivered the coup de grace. What are reporters supposed to do, for example, when the biggest newsmaker in the world lies constantly? The last four years were an intense study of that problem (and even demonstrated that even if the lies were constantly exposed, the liar could tell new ones or repeat the old ones and not seem to suffer any consequence).

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New York University professor Jay Rosen, long one of my favorite commentators on journalism and also the author of a blog called PressThink, took a look (and a think) at what happened to the norms of journalism during the Trump years, and where we stand now in the aftermath of the norms carnage engineered by the Donald. I found it brilliant and pass along a few of his paragraphs in hopes it will inspire you to read the whole thing and become a follower of PressThink.

Below are a couple of excerpts from Rosen’s post, but please read the whole thing:

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do. I spend a majority of my puzzling time on that. …

One thing is clear, however. “Newsworthiness” is a big fat dodge, or as Charlie Warzel put it, “a choice masquerading as an inevitability.” If you decide to give air time to a U.S. Senator sporting a strategic falsehood like “election integrity,” you need a far better reason than it’s an issue in the news.

Almost every act of disinformation Donald Trump ever committed was in one way or another “newsworthy” by previous standards. Were all these acts worth amplifying? They were not. So what standard replaces the “newsworthy” standard? We don’t know.

The full Rosen piece, which he promises to expand and update in the months ahead as he puzzles over the lessons of the news landscape, is here.