The Future of Journalism and Free Speech

January 10, 2018

This fall, Columbia News sat down with four of the University’s leading experts on journalism and free speech to discuss the challenges facing the industry and the First Amendment as well as the state of the news media and what the future might hold.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. How do you define excellence in journalism right now?

Dana Canedy, Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes: Even though we have new platforms and new tools for storytelling, journalism excellence is defined by authentic, original reporting based on interviews and document searches and Freedom of Information Act requests, as it always has been. And also by telling the story of people, really getting behind numbers, behind documents. That’s always been the mark of excellent journalism, and I think it always will be no matter how we wrap it. That’s one of the reasons the Pulitzer Prizes have endured for 100 years.

Kyle Pope, Editor in Chief and Publisher, Columbia Journalism Review: We have a lot of new reporting tools now. The trade craft of journalism as we’ve seen it practiced recently involves making sense of huge waves of information. How do you read it and how do you analyze it? It’s such a good reminder, especially for young journalists, that the answer is in the shoe leather.

Steve Coll, Dean, Columbia Journalism School: We’ve finally gotten past the confusion and the anxiety of the first phase of the digital revolution. Now when you hear journalists talk about new tools and how they integrate them into practice the question is: Are they serving the purpose Dana outlined? There are many stories that only computation can reveal. And so we have to update the tools for that purpose, because if you’re not asking questions of public interest from a position of independence, with a professional evidence-led approach, you’re not going to break through no matter what tools you use.

Pope: I’m just curious, Steve, where you think we are on a scale of one to ten, collectively as journalists, in our knowledge of these data tools?

Coll: One to two zone, definitely. The first wave involved trying to figure out how to distribute news across new channels, amidst anxiety about who’s a journalist and how do you manage the collapse in the barriers of entry to news publishing, in a world where everyone is a publisher. Now I feel like we have a direction for independent, public interest journalism using new tools, but we’re really at the beginning of it.

Jameel Jaffer, Director, Knight First Amendment Institute: It’s interesting to me that your responses to this question about excellence in journalism start with technology—challenges that would be with us even if Donald Trump had never been elected and will probably be with us when he is gone. It’s easy for a reader of the news to get the impression that we are in a moment of crisis, in part because of the challenges of new technology and our collective failure to address them, but maybe also because of the political landscape. One thing that I really appreciate right now are the voices that can contextualize challenges that seem existential—that these are things that other societies have dealt with, or are dealing with right now.

Canedy: You are right that a lot of the skepticism about journalism and the industry right now needs to be dealt with head-on, but one of the other ways to do that is by producing work that makes a difference in society and in people’s lives. Administrations come and go, and we should not worry that much about what one president is saying about us from time to time. The next president will be saying something else. We have to be aware of it, and do more to educate the public about what we’re doing and why that’s important.

“Administrations come and go, and we should not worry that much about what one president is saying about us from time to time.”

Dana Canedy

Pope: If we had had this conversation shortly after the election, there was still a sense that the rules had completely changed, that we shouldn’t cover this administration in a normal way. We have to cover every tweet because you have an extraordinary situation of the president free associating in a public forum. How do we deal with this presidency, and is the traditional practice of journalism outdated? Does the moment call for something else?

Coll: The evidence almost a year in is mixed. The Washington Post and The New York Times going to work, not to war, holding this administration transparent while the prior two administrations could not be penetrated. Look at the number of enterprising, traditional shoe-leather reporting and social media innovation projects that forced the resignation of the Health and Human Services secretary because of his private plane habits. And the transparency around the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Trump can call it leaks, but that’s the way this system is supposed to work. Yet there’s a strong minority of Americans whose level of distrust in journalism is off the charts. We’ve got to recognize that the depth and possibly the durability of distrust particularly in marginalized and polarized and rural communities, places that now get their news from Facebook or from New York or San Francisco. That is a serious problem for journalism in an open, democratic country.

Jaffer: The Knight Institute was set up before anybody had the idea that Trump could become president. [Columbia University President] Lee Bollinger and Alberto Ibargüen [president and CEO of the John M. and James L. Knight Foundation] were motivated by deep structural challenges having to do with the emergence of social media, the expansion of the surveillance state, the fact that legacy media organizations don’t have the resources they once did. I want to stay true to that mandate and focus on real threats and developments. Yet you have this president now who is hostile to the media and to the exercise of First Amendment rights in ways that I don’t think any previous president in recent history has been. How should the Knight Institute use its resources, particularly its litigation resources? Should we be focused on these deeper trends or on these urgent threats from this particular administration?

Coll: So, let’s talk about the inventory of threats that the Trump administration seems to represent and judge their seriousness. To me the No. 1 serious threat is the creeping criminalization of journalism in national security reporting by naming journalists as co-conspirators in the Espionage Act or other leak cases. It started with the Obama administration, and the Trump administration has been ambiguous about their policy. My assumption is that at some point they’ll make bad law around an unpopular defendant, like Wikileaks. Who’s going to stand up and fight that —because there won’t be a lot of support for opposition outside of the profession? The other thing I wonder about is incitement. When the president incites attacks on the press, sometimes physical attacks, people are listening. In every society that’s had instability or conflict or violence that I’ve covered, when the leader stands up and says, “Those people are the problem, attack them,” eventually people do, and it’s happening here.

“The trade craft of journalism as we’ve seen it practiced recently involves making sense of huge waves of information.”

Kyle Pope

Pope: The trickle-down effect of this rhetoric is real. We and the Knight Institute are members of the Press Freedom Tracker, a consortium of media organizations that looks at threats against journalists. A lot of these organizations had focused primarily on threats outside the U.S. but have now pivoted to domestic threats—from actual assaults to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] rejections, to libel cases, to people getting shut out of public meetings. The more insidious thing is how the rhetoric seeps into the local news ecosystem, where you have a newspaper writing about football scores or what time the library opens and they’re getting hit with: “You’re fake news. We don’t believe you.” I fear that whoever controls [public] records is going to start translating that into action.

Coll: I think that is the most significant threat to not just the First Amendment but the public discourse or the public debate. The whole system turns on individuals’ willingness to take political action on the basis of facts that are disclosed, right? And that presumes that people believe the facts that are being reported.

Canedy: As you point out, Steve, newsrooms are maybe not equipped with the resources to fight some of these threats. That’s where organizations like the Pulitzers, journalism schools, institutes are going to have to unite and back up newsrooms, to use our resources to push back, to help litigate, to engage in our own communication efforts, to support journalists who are being assaulted, to the newsrooms that aren’t getting access to public documents or not having their FOIA requests responded to. I think you’re going to see organizations like ours do a lot more on this front, either independently or in collaboration with like-minded partners in support of journalism.

Pope: Is that a new mandate for the Pulitzer?

“The No. 1 serious threat is the creeping criminalization of journalism in national security reporting by naming journalists as co-conspirators in the Espionage Act or other leak cases.”

Steve Coll

Canedy: I think that one of the things I’ve said to board members like Steve is that I think that we have to do more, not just the Pulitzers but organizations like the Poynter Institute, journalism schools. We’re in this together and must do more to be advocates for this industry.

Coll: So there’s a question in front of us about fake news. I think we can stipulate that we’re not talking about the rhetorical use of the words “fake news” to describe professional reporting that you don’t like. We’re talking about what is still being discovered about automated, intentionally misleading, polarizing, provocative, inflammatory content across primarily social media platforms. Two congressional committees are investigating this issue, and both recently published new examples that were used during the 2016 campaign—basically political ads placed by Kremlin-linked companies. I just find it astonishing that we’re only learning now what the facts were, and the reason is that we’ve got big powerful corporations that don’t find it in their interest to tell the American people what the hell’s going on in the public square.

Jaffer: Social media companies claim their own First Amendment rights. And if Congress were to regulate them then you could be sure that the first argument they’re going to make is that the First Amendment precludes that. A lot of people seem to agree that the social media companies should be regulated in some way, but how? That’s a very difficult question, not just because of the First Amendment interests that are on both sides here, but just the mechanics of it. What would it look like?

Coll: Let’s pull on that thread. In the 1960s the Federal Communications Commission established regulations governing the content and public interest obligations of broadcast networks. Maybe the networks felt that was a fair bargain for the exclusive license to make money off of the airwaves and never challenged it on First Amendment grounds. But is it true that in First Amendment jurisprudence there is no scope for content regulation in the public interest comparable to, say, the fairness doctrine or some of the other public interest requirements that the FCC imposed when we still regulated broadcast corporations?

“This court in some ways is more enthusiastic about the First Amendment than any previous court, but it is a particular vision of it that privileges speakers’ interests over listeners’ interests.”

Jameel Jaffer

Jaffer: This court in some ways is more enthusiastic about the First Amendment than any previous court, but it is a particular vision of it that privileges speakers’ interests over listeners’ interests. People call it the libertarian vision of the First Amendment. The court has adapted in some cases, applying analog-era precedents to digital-age technology. Earlier this year in Packingham vs. North Carolina the court unanimously held that a North Carolina statute that restricted access to Facebook was unconstitutional. So there’s a willingness to adapt to new technology, but how that plays out is very difficult to say.

Pope: We at CJR [Columbia Journalism Review] just added a full-time writer to write about nothing other than these social media companies as journalistic entities, and how they interact with journalism, in terms of business models—there’s a huge information campaign on their part to influence journalists and how journalists think about this.

Coll: Journalism has failed to report and uncover any of this during the time that it was happening and when it was relevant to the country. Facebook has a record of evading accountability crisis after crisis, whether that’s about their privacy violations or their monopoly power or the use of their platform by violent actors. In the 2016 election they just got gamed.

Pope: It sounds like you’re almost cynical about the influence of their lobbying/support of media in the newsroom, like that’s going to affect how they’re covered?

Coll: If you ask people in newsrooms, “What are you worried about?” the main challenge they face is their dependency on these companies and the lousy revenue split they get and the hoops they have to jump through whenever they have to change their algorithms to repurpose their content to reach their audiences. Journalism companies are gasping for oxygen, and even richer ones, the cable news-based companies, know they’ve got a disruption coming. The big problem they face is the monopoly scale of something like Facebook or Google and the amount of cash they have to pivot into your space.

Jaffer: Even if you have reporters willing to report aggressively about these companies and they’re backed up by the institutions they work for, the tools at their disposal are limited. You can’t file a Freedom of Information Act request with Facebook and expect to get anything in response. And even if you send a letter and ask them to disclose information, you can’t sue if they say no. Congress is demanding that they release information, and to some extent they are, but that moment’s going to pass. There are a lot of reasons why these companies are going to be insulated from accountability in a way that government actors, like the Trump administration, aren’t.

Canedy: When I was at The New York Times doing recruiting I was struck by the number of people who applied for various positions, millennials in particular, who said they got their news through social media. And I’d say, “Well, what do you mean specifically?” “Well, Facebook and Twitter.” Yet they didn’t think those were news sites. I think there’s confusion in general, inside the industry and out. Do they produce news, or are they news organizations when it’s convenient for them to be? That makes all of this murky in terms of how we think as journalists, when to join forces with them. It’s going to take years to sort this out.

Coll: I think there’s a pretty good chance that if we were sitting around here 10 years from now we will be talking about Amazon’s or Apple’s news service. It just makes sense because their strategy is still proprietary, licensed content and building community around it, and I think it’s very hard to succeed in a post-newspaper age without some news, even if it’s local news. Then if you had real independent journalism with resources on the scale of Amazon or Apple, then the problem of Facebook feels a lot different.

Canedy: That’s a fascinating prospect.

Pope: Maybe they’ll win a Pulitzer one day.