Now more than ever, we need stories that will bring us together rather than pulling us farther apart. The media has an opportunity to bring to light these stories and redeem itself after what some are calling an “epic” failure this election season.
The media, many say, missed the story and “blew it” by not taking Trump voters seriously enough. The criticism, which has cut across political lines, raises important questions about the media’s power and purpose.
“The media is supposed to be a check to power, but, for years now, it has basked in becoming power in its own right,” Danah Boyd wrote in a blog post this week. “What worries me right now is that, as it continues to report out the spectacle, it has no structure for self-reflection, for understanding its weaknesses, its potential for manipulation.”
Boyd’s point about self-reflection is key. Media organizations and individual practitioners aren’t given enough opportunities to reflect on what they do, why they do it, and why it matters. Too often, this reflection comes from media critics, rather than the media itself.
The day after the election, media critic and CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis wrote a postmortem for journalism, saying: “Journalism lost sight of its simple, vital reason to exist: to inform the public. Think back on story after story and round table after round table and ask whether it was conceived and executed to help inform the electorate or instead to entertain them and grab their attention or make the journalist look like the smart one. Our job is to make the public smart.”
I would argue that it’s also the media’s job to help people understand differences. This means giving equal weight to liberals and conservatives, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor. It means covering rural communities with as much vigor as bustling cities, without settling for cliches about Main Street and Wall Street. It means shedding light on questions like “why?” and “what happened?” It means reallocating resources and putting people before polls.
“It’s easy to sit in our ivory towers and make ‘educated’ guesses about who the frontrunners are,” Emily Ramshaw, editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, recently told Poynter.org. “It’s another thing entirely to step out of D.C. and New York — to step off of the campaign buses and out of the debate halls — and absorb the frustration and resentment of the underprivileged, the uneducated, in the South, in the Rust Belt, in the American heartland.”
The media has an opportunity to go deeper in the months ahead — to seek out stories that help Americans develop a more well-rounded picture of people who think and act differently from them. Part of the responsibility lies on news consumers, too — to look beyond their social circles and their usual go-to news sources in search of different perspectives. Sometimes these differences are far too painful to accept or understand, particularly when it comes to bigotry, racism, and sexism. But not all differences are divisive.
The media alone can’t bridge divides, but it can highlight stories that will help people find meaningful pathways forward during a time when many feel as though the country has taken huge steps back.
Stories — whether told through journalism, documentary film, photography, poetry, or art — help us envision new possibilities. They restore our faith in humanity. When told right, they unite.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” author Toni Morrison wrote after the 2004 election. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Seems like a pretty good motto for the media.