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Five Major Trends

Five Major Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Last year we identified the underlying trends shaping the transformation. In 2005, our research has led us to five main conclusions about the nature of the media landscape.

There are now several models of journalism, and the trajectory increasingly is toward those that are faster, looser, and cheaper. The traditional press model – the journalism of verification – is one in which journalists are concerned first with trying to substantiate facts. It has ceded ground for years on talk shows and cable to a new journalism of assertion, where information is offered with little time and little attempt to independently verify its veracity. Consider the allegations by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” and the weeks of reporting required to find that their claims were unsubstantiated. The blogosphere, while adding the richness of citizen voices, expands this culture of assertion exponentially, and brings to it an affirmative philosophy: publish anything, especially points of view, and the reporting and verification will occur afterward in the response of fellow bloggers. The result is sometimes true and sometimes false. Blogs helped unmask errors at CBS, but also spread the unfounded conspiracy theory that the GOP stole the presidential election in Ohio. All this makes it easier for those who would manipulate public opinion – government, interest groups and corporations – to deliver unchecked messages, through independent outlets or their own faux-news Web sites, video and text news releases and paid commentators. Next, computerized editing has the potential to take this further, blending all these elements into a mix.

The rise in partisanship of news consumption and the notion that people have retreated to their ideological corners for news has been widely exaggerated. A year ago we mentioned a third, older form of news that seemed to be gaining momentum – the journalism of affirmation. Here the news is gathered with a point of view, whether acknowledged or not, and audiences come to have their preconceptions reinforced. In 2004, that notion gained new force when Pew Research Center survey data revealed that Republicans and conservatives had become more distrustful of the news media over the past four years, while the perceptions of Democrats, moderates and liberals had remained about the same. This led to the popular impression that independent journalism was giving way to a European-style partisan press, in which some Americans consume Red Media and others Blue. The evidence suggests that such perceptions are greatly overstated. The overwhelming majority of Americans say they prefer independent, non-partisan news media. So, apparently, do advertisers and investors. In addition, distrusting the media does not correlate to how or whether people use it. Not only do Republicans and Democrats consume most news media outlets in similar levels, but those in both parties who distrust the news media are often heavier consumers of news outlets than those who are more trusting. The only exceptions to this are talk radio and cable news. In the latter, Republicans have tended to congregate in one place, Fox. For most other media, the political orientation of the audience mirrors the population. The political makeup of the network news audience, for instance, matches that of the Weather Channel.

To adapt, journalism may have to move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert, and of widening the scope of its searchlight. Journalists aspire in the new landscape to be the one source that can best help citizens discover what to believe and what to disbelieve – a shift from the role of gatekeeper to that of authenticator or referee. To do that, however, it appears news organizations may have to make some significant changes. They may have to document their reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it. Doing so would help inoculate their work from the rapid citizen review that increasingly will occur online and elsewhere. In effect, the era of trust-me journalism has passed, and the era of show-me journalism has begun. As they move toward being authenticators, news organizations also may have to enrich their expertise, both on staff and in their reporting. Since citizens have a deeper range of information at their fingertips, the level of proof in the press must rise accordingly. The notion of filling newsrooms only with talented generalists may not be enough. And rather than merely monitoring the official corridors of power, news organizations may need to monitor the new alternative means of public discussion as well. How else can the press referee what people are hearing in those venues? Such changes will require experimentation, investment, vision and a reorganization of newsrooms.

Despite the new demands, there is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences. That is true even online, where audiences are growing. Our data suggest that news organizations have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations than in their old media, and where the investment has come is in technology for processing information, not people to gather it. One reason is that the new technologies are still providing relatively modest revenues. The problem is that the traditional media are leaving it to technology companies – like Google – and to individuals and entrepreneurs – like bloggers – to explore and innovate on the Internet. The risk is that traditional journalism will cede to such competitors both the new technology and the audience that is building there. For now, traditional media brands still control most of where audiences go online for news, but that is already beginning to change. In 2004, Google News emerged as a major new player in online news, and the audience for bloggers grew by 58% in six months, to 32 million people.

The three broadcast network news divisions face their most important moment of transition in decades. A generation of network journalists is retiring. Two of the three anchors are new. One network, CBS, has said it wants to rethink nightly news entirely. Nightline, one of the ornaments of American broadcast journalism, was fighting for its life. After years of programming inertia and audience decline, network news finds itself at a crossroads. If the networks rethink nightly news, will they build on the programs’ strengths – carefully written, taped and edited storytelling – or cut costs and make the shows more unscripted, like cable interview programs? Will they try to find network evening news a better time slot, or begin to walk away from producing signature nightly newscasts altogether because of the programs’ aging demographics? Will ABC try to save Nightline because it adds to the network’s brand, or drop it because the company could make more money with a variety show? The next year will likely signal the degree to which passion, inertia or math drives the future of network news.