Morgan Minix, Reimagined Futures for Howard University News Service
As America transitions into the Biden administration and the internet’s prominence continues, the role of investigative journalism faces new challenges, while simultaneously trying meet the demands of supplying the public with important information.
According to those who study the connection between the press and the people, the relationship is in a tenuous place.
“I do think that the politicization of the press, however, is a huge problem because there is already so much distrust in our culture around the media and the established institutions that are mass media,” said Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel at The Center for Investigative Reporting and Reveal, a nonprofit investigative reporting outlet.
“That is why they have been surmounted by other organizations that pose themselves to be truth tellers and really aren’t doing the kind of information gather and fact checking that news organizations are known for,” she continued.
According to research conducted by Edelman, the PR and marketing firm, trust in both traditional media and social media reached all time lows in 2021. The percentage of Americans who trust traditional media fell to 47 percent, while the same metric for social media fell to 27 percent.
Numbers from Axios showing the rate of trust in traditional by Americans displays just how precipitous the drop in trust is. While earlier years saw fluctuation, the results from this early decade show deep distrust.
Veteran journalists Mark Bauman believes that the rise in hot takes, lack of newsroom diversity, and underfunding have in part created the current media ecosystem, “Putting things out there that generate clicks or fast purchase decisions work commercially but do not work quite as well in terms of helping journalism perform its function of creating an informed citizenry.”
Baranetsky attributes some of this distrust to President Donald Trump’s administration and their statements on the media. During his campaign and presidency, Trump called the media, “the true enemy of the people.” and popularized the term, “fake news”.
Some journalists and experts believe that while the administration has changed and the relationship between the federal government and journalists is no longer outwardly hostile, the objective of journalism has not changed.
“All of the folks that did the fine work during the Trump administration and prior are going to continue doing the fine work. Journalists don’t care who is in the White House when it comes to writing and pursuing accountability and reporting,” said Topher Sanders, a journalist at ProPublica, an independent journalism outlet.
Sanders also said that his reporting would not be affected by the new administration because of the manner of his investigations, and the goal of journalism generally.
His view is echoed by others.
“The presidency did not get less powerful by Joe Biden assuming office. So, it is always a question of what that power is used for. That’s your job as a journalist; to figure out, so how is this power being used?” said Derek Willis, a news applications developer at ProPublica who also co-founded OpenElections, a nonprofit with the goal of centralizing election results.
While the administration change in Washington D.C. may not substantially change the world of investigative journalists, the changes seen on the internet continue to affect the job of investigating. The creation and proliferation of social media sites, the use of the internet by news outlets, and the overall mainstreaming of the internet as a media source has greatly changed the ways in which journalists investigate.
The last few years have seen the emergence of Twitter as the main source of presidential messaging, Facebook’s similar and controversial rise (link to why it is controversial) as a news source, and other outlets across the country continuing their consolidation of online operations.
The growth of these social media sites have also given rise to a diverse set of online opinions both mainstream and fringe. For some experts, they see this rise as a challenge to journalism and investigative journalism’s ability to establish authority in society.
These changes have seen the emergence of social media sites including Twitter and Facebook as important information hubs as well as communication and social tools with 53 percent of Americans using social media to stay abreast of news.
As social media sites become more commonplace, their power and influence has continued to rise.
Barantesky likened the power now held by social media companies like Facebook to the power associated with governments and believes there should be a consideration of a similar level of accountability for the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Barantesky also cited Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump from their platform following the Capitol riots on January 6th as an interesting example of social media power. Twitter’s ban was followed by swift and similar action from many other social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
The action by social media companies signaled their intentions moving forward as it related to what types of speech and figures would be allowed on their platforms. The move made headlines and sparked debates about freedom of speech.
Many in the media have debated the role and function of social media companies in the creation and delivery of news. As social media has become the norm in political messaging, newsgathering, and a hub for news and information, their ability to impact the way journalists preform work on their platforms has become a topic of conversation.
“The first amendment only bans the government from squashing speech, so it might be legally permissible to ban the president or ban a journalist, but the question is- is that raising other concerns? And should we consider as these companies have grown in such a way with immense power that it would raise real red flags about how our democracy functions,” said Baranetsky.
Baranetsky also noted the ways in which social media sites and the government can use certain statutes like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Espionage Act to sue and deter would be investigators.
The CFAA allows for private companies to sue journalists who violate terms of service (ToS). Some investigations by their very nature will violate ToS regulations put in place by the companies themselves.
Private companies can range in size, scope, and influence, but this law can have specific power when applied to social media sites which are visible and important tentpoles of investigative journalism.
While this is an example of the potential difficulties journalists face on the internet, the medium has also allowed for wider availability of data. This is crucial to securing information and creating important stories but can present its own set of challenges.
“There’s lots of information just sitting around on the internet that probably could make for really good stories and in some cases our problem as journalists is the reverse of what it used to be. Before we really couldn’t get access to enough information or the kinds of information we want, and now in some respects there is more information available to us then we can process,” said Willis.
Willis cited the work done by ProPublica collecting video from Parler taken during the riot at the Capitol as an example of the new ways in which a glut of online information has changed the way journalists have to synthesize information.
Interestingly, the transition to mass information disclosure online has not been universal. The Obama administration routinely set records for non-compliance and withholding information via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and spent $36 million fighting FOIA lawsuits. The Trump Administration was even less transparent with releasing information when a FOIA request was submitted.
Because of the ways in which social media has affected reporting, the ways in which journalists source information has changed. Social media has created a system in which reports can approach sources and vice-versa.
“The internet undoubtedly changes the way all reporters can do their work. It’s just without question. It’s as simple as finding a source to more complicated things like using copious hours of video to identify insurrection participants.” said Sanders.
“Before trying to measure or make sense of the reaction stuff was hard because we don’t have a large view of it, we mostly have an up close view of it. Now we can get a larger sample of people. It is unlikely to be a perfect representation, but we now can kind of figure out how at least some segment of the population is reacting.” said Willis.
Willis also saw a change in the way election results are collected and delivered. For many states he no longer has to request results in electronic format creating a net positive for his OpenElections project.
Investigative journalism has undergone many changes in recent years. Whether it be in administration and the availability of information from the federal government, the double edge sword of social media, or the mass amount of other data now on offer, the internet is the catalyst for many of these changes.