Journalism’s fate

A Q&A on journalism’s future

Tom Krattenmaker

I was pleased to have the opportunity to do an interview on media trends and the future of journalism for the 2018 issue of Barna Trends. With permission of the Barna Group, I am publishing the text of that interview. All my thanks to the Barna Group for extending this opportunity and giving me permission to reprint the interview on my website.

Is there such a thing as truly objective journalism? What unique roles do you think both unbiased and biased media can play?

Even if I write one of my pieces in the most objective manner possible, the very process of choosing what to write about, and how, is shot through with subjectivity. The same is true with media in general. What constitutes news? What is emphasized and deemphasized in a story, and which voices are included and which are not? Subjectivity plays a role in all this.
Objectivity is too high a standard to achieve—but that does not mean we cannot strive for and achieve other important objectives. Like being fair, even-handed, honest, and willing to convey information that is inconvenient not only to our audiences but also to ourselves as conveyors of that information.

What can be done for media—regardless of its ties or biases—to regain credibility with a wary public?

Here’s a glib answer: The media will have to stop getting major things wrong! It’ll take time, effort, and a strong body of work for mainstream media to restore the credibility lost by their whiffng so badly on the 2016 presidential election. Major media will have to do more, too, to make it clear that they serve all citizens, irrespective of their political and cultural affiliations.
But consumers of media also have a role to play in this restoration project. The public must stop dismissing coverage it dislikes as “fake” or “biased.” If we reject plainly accurate, verifiable information because it challenges our worldview, who then is truly guilty of being ruled by bias?

What would you recommend as a “balanced diet” when it comes to the ways in which people receive news?

The key is to push ourselves to go outside our comfort zone and consume media that we would not naturally consume. For example, I “force” myself to watch Fox News and read the newsfeed of the Christian Broadcasting Network from time to time. It can be a jolt to the system for a northeast liberal (and former Portland, Oregon, resident) like me. It can even be a little bewildering, but that’s good. It’s good to receive reminders that what I see as obviously true and good can look so different from another perspective.
Generally, I think you’re spot-on with the premise of your question. It’s all about balance. This means sampling more liberal media if you’re a conservative, and vice-versa. It means balance between the formats we engage: quick-hit hard news coverage balanced with books, social media balanced with old-school newspapers and magazines (on and offline), online interactions balanced with face-to-face conversations in which we can process all that media and make sense of it in the company of conversation partners.

What are the limits of even the strongest reporting and journalism, in regard to how it can be understood and used by its audience?

As crucial as they are to the functioning of democracy, facts alone do not change hearts and spur positive social change. Stories are what move people. That said, journalism encompasses a broad range of forms and styles, very much including stories and portraits of human beings and human lives. Some of these can be quite illuminating and even inspiring. Who knows? Maybe the heart of a dedicated Islamophobe can be changed by a story about a Muslim fellow citizen who loves America unabashedly and is serving her/his community irrespective of their religion, or who is serving bravely in the U.S. military. Who knows? Maybe the most ardent secularist can be touched by the tale of a devout Christian taking principled action at considerable cost to herself or himself to serve vulnerable people. So from that standpoint—forgive my idealism—there really aren’t limits. The main limit I can see is the one we impose on journalism—and ourselves. The journalism you avoid has no ability to touch you and move you.

What is the “next frontier” when it comes to religion reporting in America? What are the trends you’re watching that are affecting your subjects or your industry at large?

I’ve been reading numerous articles and a book exploring the nexus between faith and technology. There’s so much talk now about things like the singularity, the possibilities of technological immortality or resurrection, life on other planets, and so on. These have huge implications for religion; they could profoundly destabilize traditional religion. It’s my sense that religion journalism is only beginning to grapple with these fascinating stories.
However, going back over several years and looking into the future, the trend most striking to me is the religious disaffiliation we hear so much about. Similar to the faith and technology nexus, we are only beginning to see and understand disaffiliation and its ramifications. These ramifications are huge, of course—not just for religious people and institutions but for society as a whole. As religion recedes in the Western world, what will fill that vacuum? That’s a big question that hangs over our time, and an important frontier in the religion reporting that’s to come.

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