On Journalism, Social Media, and COVID-19

A colleague of mine pointed me toward a Ben Thompson’s Stratechery piece entitled “An Interview with Zeynep Tufekci About Masks, Media, and Information Ecology.” The interview is long, fascinating, and behind a paywall. However, the part of it that struck my interest was a single quote that doesn’t even need to be in context to make my thoughts coherent:

But journalists kind of failed because there wasn’t enough of a questioning environment, a lot of things were repeated just because they came from authorities. –Zeynep Tufecki
A valid viewpoint.

I sent a long response back to my colleague, and my lightly edited thoughts are below.

I think that Tufecki’s viewpoint here is reasonable and even defensible. Nonetheless, I disagree with it both as a former full-time journalist and current social media practitioner/teacher. Tufecki is thinking about the tensions between being a paper of record (journalist-of-record / beat reporter) and producing in-depth reportage (features reporter / investigative reporter), roles which are ever and always fraught. Especially so, in the social media era.

As a journalist, I have a question about the nature of reportage. If a journalist is getting told lies by authorities and there’s no way to check the information because all the sources are classified and no one will leak the real information to you, what do you do? Not publish what the government says? You could, but I feel like that would eliminate the function of paper of record. If journalists choose not to publish things because they cannot verify things directly and the government is an unreliable narrator, then we would have very little direct reporting (beat reporting / paper-of-record reporting). You could have more time to do the in-depth reporting, perhaps, the sort of work that Tufecki wants here; the Watergate-style reporting where you trust no one and verify everything and break the real story that the government was hiding. But you’re not a paper of record anymore if you abandon paper-of-record reporting (some of which will be outright lies the government told you) for investigative reporting. Papers can’t just choose to not report because the government might be lying and the journalist can’t tell–and then still hope to be a paper of record. Doing the publishing of statements is, in my mind, critically important; because if you do get people to whistleblow or you can find other information later, you can cross-reference the paper of record and say “they were lying.” But if you never publish, then you’re never going to have that for the in-depth reporters to use. 

As a social media practitioner/teacher, I have questions about how reporting works in this particular moment. In the information ecology we have now, there’s less time and money to do the in-depth reporting, and that is a true loss. We need better and more in-depth reporting, and we’re still (as an industry) working on ways to get that. It’s hard. Social media has further muddied the already-and-always-muddied waters of who is a journalist and what is journalism. Perhaps paper-of-record sources are not as necessary as they used to be, in an era of smartphones capturing everything verbatim and instantaneous publishing to the web. These are all important questions that tie in to this concern.

But to say that the paper-of-record journalists (whoever they are) need to verify the veracity of all claims the government makes (thinking of President Trump) or do reporting to specifically get people to contradict what is verified as a true statement (the CDC did actually say things about not wearing masks; it’s not untrue to report that they did that) is to conflate two parts of journalism. And it’s a real argument to make that maybe we don’t need any more paper-of-record reporters and we need more in-depth journalists; I’m very willing to discuss that argument.

However, I don’t think that asking paper-of-record journalists to all operate in the mindset of in-depth journalists is the right call. We have beat reporters and features reporters for a reason. They do different work. We always need to rethink the conditions of beat and in-depth reporting, and in this information ecology, need can be bumped up to must. But I will stick by reporters-of-record; they can only do so much. 

While I found this point to quibble with, the interview is fantastic. If you know someone who subscribes to Stratechery (whose work I enjoy so much that I am wearing their hoodie right now), have them send you their daily update on this one.