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Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

"Call a Thing a Thing:" Clough Center Discusses Journalism and Democracy

On Thursday, September 22, the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy hosted the Reviewing Journalism, Restoring Democracy event. This event was an analysis of what, if any, debt journalism has to democracy in both teaching the public and preserving its values. 

The event began with opening remarks from Jonathan Laurence, the director of the Clough Center, who put forward a very strong proposition: that it should be the job of the media to keep the people knowledgeable and hold the powerful accountable, and that true journalism could be one of the last things keeping a democratic society free, even when other institutions may fail. But how can we balance this with a sense of journalistic neutrality? If one side is the one that is threatening democracy, can the media call this out without being labeled “partisan?” These are powerful questions that the following speakers would attempt to address. 

“This century has proven to be challenging terrain for the world’s democracy,” Laurence explained, adding that the Clough Center was uniquely placed to deal with “the threat to credible sources of news and information.” Laurence also cited a study by the Pew Research Center stating that 70% of Americans are concerned about this deteriorating credibility of the media—the highest topic of concern behind climate change. 

Michael Schudson of Columbia Journalism School, who gave the opening keynote, contended with this question by raising a few key tasks for the press, including informing the public and analyzing news as it comes in, yet its most critical job is actually to explain democracy to people. 

“You will not be surprised that I bring you no magic resolution of today’s crisis for journalism or for democracy,” Schudson explained, but that there were causes for optimism. As part of its relationship to democracy, Schudson advocated that it was the media’s role to present the general public with a serious analysis of political affairs, which he claimed it has done better over the last 50 years than in any other time in American history.

However, Schudson argued that journalism has1 changed its relationship to democracy. Schudson explained that when one of the parties in government engages in open misinformation, the question of how can the media be objective is impossible to avoid - and whether the media can support democratic values while staying true to objectivity. The upholding of democracy and democratic values must supersede objectivity when this is the case, he argued, specifically citing the values of objectivity, civility, focusing on storytelling, and prioritizing upholding democracy through journalism focused on public service and accountability.

The journalist roundtable, which included Renee Graham of the Boston Globe and Piotr Smolar of French newspaper Le Monde, attempted to answer some of these questions through their own perspectives and their own lives as journalists. Graham opened by stating that “What we should now recognize is that democracies can also die in broad daylight as well as darkness,” and that the shrinking number of news companies and newspapers now have a larger responsibility to combat misinformation and attempts by politicians to control the narrative. Smolar, in his opening remarks, agreed with this, stating that he does not “shy away with [sic] the dilemmas and challenges that we all face in liberal democracies.” Additionally, the control of the media in the United States by private interests, Smolar added, has “blurred lines” between independent journalism and stories dominated by the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

The two discussed whether or not the media should handle uncomfortable situations, such as the rise of Donald Trump and the far right, and whether or not it would be correct as journalists to call his supporters “outright racists,” with Graham stating that “All journalists must learn to call a thing a thing” and not back away from words that may make audiences uncomfortable. There was agreement that true journalism should not back away from uncomfortable stories, but there was disagreement in how to handle it. With the previously discussed case, there was debate on whether or not it would be better to simply describe actions and let people come to the conclusion that these people are racist, or whether to directly label them as racist based on the facts presented. Both journalists agreed however, that journalism must be about preserving democracy, even if there was disagreement on what that would directly entail. 

Finally, the keynote closed with CNN anchor and Chief Domestic Affairs Correspondent, Jim Acosta. He came out boldly in defense of the press being the defenders of democracy, and the need for the press to be able to inform the public so that they can clearly see when a threat to democracy arises. The freedom that journalists have in the US, unlike in autocratic nations like Cuba, Acosta contrasted, is that they can question the narrative and they can do their job to the people by holding the powerful accountable. Letting the people make their own judgements is also important, but ultimately, journalists should prioritize the job of openly calling out threats to democracy.

Patrick Dumitrescu
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