Distrust of the American media is near an all-time high, and our democracy is in peril.
Since a tumultuous 2016 election where President Donald Trump and his supporters berated the media, introducing the term “fake news” while calling out inconsistencies and flaws in the media’s coverage, Americans have grown more polarized, skeptical of the news and wary of misinformation.
As the 2020 presidential election inches closer, I talked with Ryan Alessi, an assistant professor in JMU’s School of Media Arts & Design, about the state of the media industry, especially heading into the election. He helped start The Harrisonburg Citizen, an independent online news site serving Harrisonburg, and he teaches a class on media and politics here at JMU.
We spoke Oct. 2 in Harrison Hall, six feet apart with masks on, as is the standard these days. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation and the full podcast.
James Faris, editor of the Madison Business Review: Ryan, thank you so much for joining me today.
Ryan Alessi, assistant professor in JMU’s School of Media Arts & Design: Thanks for having me, James.
Media and the election
JF: So we know that just around the corner is a presidential election with massive implications going forward, and it appears to be neck and neck as of this point. How, in your view, has the media done in covering the election so far, and how could it possibly improve?
RA: I think the media was much more prepared for fact-checking, especially fact-checking in real time. And we've seen with the rise of [conspiracy theory site] QAnon, a lot of these conspiracy theories and a lot of, you know, this fake fiction that's passing as news in some areas, and so the media's ability to get out correct information and fact-check that, whether it's coming from candidates or coming from dark corners of the internet, that's so essential.
People can't make informed decisions without having the actual facts, and I think that's one thing that will be a continued challenge. But I'm pleased to see media outlets really aggressively trying to combat that.
JF: Absolutely, and in 2016, so much in the world went completely upside down in terms of racial unrest, in terms of political unrest and political tensions that we really haven't seen at least. I know growing up with Obama [vs.] McCain, Obama [vs.] Romney, there was disagreement, but it didn't have the hate and the vitriol behind it that we saw coming from the left and coming from the right. So I do think the media industry, like you said, was unprepared. Hopefully, it's better prepared going forward.
In your view — I know this is something you've studied and thought about a lot — but what happened to the media in 2016? Where did it succeed, and where did it fail and fall short? And I would love to know what you think is different about this election in particular.
RA: The media said Hillary Clinton was going to win, and I think there was a disconnect between what the polls actually do and what people perceived polls to be. The media did a poor job of describing that polls are snapshots in time. They're not meant to be predictive crystal balls. A lot of the media coverage about the polls was [that] Hillary Clinton's running away with it. Hillary Clinton's got this huge lead. And there's a couple things.
First, we don't in this country decide the presidential election by total votes cast by the populace. We decide by the Electoral College, which is decided on a state-by-state basis, and so the polling wasn't really wrong in that. Hillary Clinton did win by almost four points in the popular vote.
"People can't make informed decisions without having the actual facts." -Ryan Alessi, assistant professor in JMU’s School of Media Arts & Design
Where the polling failed was it wasn't really giving us an accurate view of what the race was decided by. It's kind of like saying, you know, here's who's winning a baseball game based on how many hits they have as opposed to how many runs. So that's the first thing that I think the media learned from that, and we're talking about news outlets here and some of those outlets.
It failed to really pick up on one of those things that you talked about, and that's this hyper-partisanship. That's what requires old-school, get-out-there, gumshoe reporting, go out to different communities, find out what people are really thinking, find out how deeply they feel about their party or their candidate. They might have been able to see that there were a lot of people who were resistant to either facts or information about the other side because they feel so much loyalty to their side.
If there's a third lesson to be learned out of 2016, it's not necessarily a failure of the media, but I think we saw what the effects are of these communities who have lost their local news outlets — particularly newspapers — because if people are relying on getting all their information from Facebook or Twitter, or these internet sites that aren't meant to be news.
Some of them are put up as actual satire or even fake news just to get clicks. If people are getting their information from that, they can't be making informed decisions, so I think those were the three big takeaways of where we as a country needed to take stock of media.
Media and trust
JF: When I chose journalism, there are a lot of people who said, “That's great,” but some were like, “Well, I hope you're one of the good journalists. I hope you're one of the honest journalists.”
I think a lot of journalists have to straddle a line between, you know, the media has failed in certain ways. It has mishandled certain issues, certainly. Americans’ trust in the media — last time I checked — it was right around 30%. It's one of the least-trusted institutions, especially in recent years, and it's far lower among those on the right. Conservatives often distrust the media for what they believe is a lack of consistency, fairness and even a lack of ethics.
What's your response to this, and do you think some of the conservatives on the right may even have a point where the media has fallen short?
RA: I mean, I think that's a huge issue facing the media. But I don't know that it’s just limited to those on the right. There’s a lot going on in that question. There's a lot of distrust, there's a lot of uncertainty, there's a lot of misinformation all the way around, and I'm curious because I hear the same thing about, “Hey, I hope you're one of the good journalists.”
When you get asked that, do you get the sense that they're asking about whether you're ethical and honest and following, kind of, traditional journalism, you know, approaches or do you get the feeling that they're asking, “Hey, are you one of the good journalists? Are you on my side?”
“Are you one of the good journalists? Are you on my side?”
JF: I definitely think it's the latter. It might be a bit of the former in terms of, “I hope you're ethical.” I honestly hope — I don't care about any person's politics — I hope ethics [are upheld]. I mean, I’m taking an ethics course with [SMAD] professor [Michael] Grundmann right now, and we're learning about what it means to be ethical and what practices to hold. And I hope everyone follows those. I know that may not always be the case.
But yeah, I do absolutely think it's, you know, in America we love sports and we love cheering for certain teams, you know, and I absolutely get that sense in politics. It's very much, you know, the red pom-poms and the blue pom-poms, and it's very much picking sides.
And it's scary and troubling for me but I — to your question — I absolutely get the sense that it's not only partisan and polarized, but it’s very much picking sides.
RA: I am not on your team or the other team. I’m an [umpire]. I'm a referee, you know, and you know I shouldn't be rooting for one of the teams or the other. I should be calling fouls or penalties or whatever you want to call it on both sides.
So that we all, as a participant in democracy, have an idea of what's true, what's false; what’s a lie, what’s a true statement; what’s actually happening and what we should be concerned about, and what is actually fake news.
JF: Absolutely, and something I saw over the summer that really caught my eye is Ryan Parkhurst, another assistant professor here at the School of Media Arts & Design, published a Medium blog post, and he said, “I am not the media. I am a journalist.”
And I think that even the term the mainstream media, I think a lot of people tend to lump all journalists into one group in one category, and it's a homogenous group. And you're a journalist, so you're them. I think there's a lot, unfortunately, of misunderstanding.
Media's draw, despite flaws
I would love to know now about you a little bit, about your background, what made you want to get into journalism and what you like most about teaching journalism students here at JMU. And I know the news industry has changed a lot since you've entered it. I'd love to know what you've seen some of the shifts being.
RA: Well, I got into journalism in college, and I knew a lot as a journalism consumer because my family subscribed to the Baltimore Sun, and I grew up, you know, first reading the sports pages and the comics and eventually, the front page.
"If you're getting into journalism to be rich, you've made a strategic error." -Ryan Alessi, assistant professor in JMU’s School of Media Arts & Design
I knew about journalism as a consumer, but then it wasn't until I started practicing it as a college journalist and then getting internships that I thought, “This is just such an amazing opportunity because no day is ever the same. No story’s ever the same.”
Right out of college, you know, having the responsibility of covering the Sept. 11 attacks. And then going across the country to find out how that affected communities, to cover Congress, to then being able to cover presidential races later on in my career, a vice presidential debate, presidential conventions, the NCAA tournament in 2013. Getting to be there for these historic opportunities and getting paid for it.
If you're getting into journalism to be rich, you've made a strategic error. However, if you're getting into journalism to have a rich life and career and be exposed to things and be able to record history and be able to be part of history in that way and write the first draft of it, there is nothing more rewarding.
I don't regret my decision to get into journalism one single day. In fact, I can't quit it, as you notice. So, I tell my students that even though the industry is changing and there are some transitions where media organizations aren't surviving, that's always been the case.
We're going through that transition, and there will always be a role and a need for journalists in a vibrant democracy.
JF: Absolutely, and even though I think, as far as what's changing the news industry, I think what's changing is how people are getting their news, but — as you would probably agree — the demand for information has never been higher. People need and crave information, you know, via social media and so many platforms. It might not be coming as much through the print medium anymore, but there's certainly an insatiable demand across the world.
RA: You’re so right, and not just information but quality information and great stories. Well-told stories. I mean, you know the Conde Nast magazine company [that publishes Vogue and GQ], they now have a production arm to produce movies and television shows based on the journalism and the great stories that their magazine journalists are telling.
JF: Absolutely, and I think people are additionally craving podcasts and video content more. Not just because of social media, but I mean, what is Netflix? Netflix is stories and it is in that video format but people love documentaries, they love fiction, they love all types of movies and TV shows about every subject. It's wired deep within human beings to want stories.
Media's financial future
I don't know how optimistic I am currently about the state of the media industry, especially financially, which is what we’ll shift into now.
There is a business side to the media industry; there are financial difficulties. Last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, our unemployment rate was near a 50-year low at 3.5%, yet media companies — by and large — were still cutting jobs. There were some areas of growth, but there were layoffs and furloughs and job insecurity.
For me and a lot of my peers, it's a scary time to be getting into the journalism industry. Now, from what you’ve said, I’m confident that you’d choose journalism again, and I know you believe in that.
But I’d love to know what advice you would give to journalism students and recent graduates who are stepping into this brave new world where there is no job security, you are not getting probably financial security — at least for a long time — and it's a tough world out there. How have you advised students and recent graduates?
RA: I’m an optimist by nature, but I would actually say that there are so many more opportunities in this challenging time, especially for people coming through the School of Media Arts [& Design] here at JMU.
First of all, you don't have to think too hard about being able to learn different platforms because you get that in this program and doing what you're doing, James, by reporting on multiple platforms doing a podcast, writing stories, working with Breeze TV and doing that on multiple levels, that just trains you.
It also gives you information to then innovate. I believe that there are certain industries that will not only survive but be latched onto, especially in times of turmoil. We can't live without water, we can't live without food, but we also can't live without information about threats out there, information about what's going on.
That's why I believe that even though we're going through, in the industry, growing pains about what the financial model is, what the technological future is, how do we protect people's privacy while also advertising to get revenue, all those are questions about how we get and distribute the information. It's not a question about whether the information is necessary.
So if you can go out there and innovate, and if you can adjust to the changing technology and figure out ways to harness it you're going to be, you know, you're going to be a superhero.
And all storytellers are superheroes anyway, it's just you're one of the, you know, the well-rounded superheroes. So I think this is an incredibly important, essential time to get into journalism and media and storytelling, and I think it's a great time for SMAD majors to do that.
James Faris is a senior media arts and design major. Contact James at email@example.com.