Journalism is Outdated: Professor Barbie Zelizer Discusses a New ‘Manifesto’

In "The Journalism Manifesto," Professor Barbie Zelizer and her co-authors argue that journalism needs a major transformation in order to survive as an essential pillar of our democracy.

By Alina Ladyzhensky

While journalism has adapted to the digital age in many ways, its institutional norms and practices have failed to respond to many cultural and political changes. Newsroom diversity remains a problem, both in terms of staff and the sources they use, while the rise of social media has drastically reframed journalism’s role as a relevant and responsive gatekeeper of information. 

If journalism is to remain an essential institution in our democracy, argues Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication, an overdue transformation is needed. Our very democracy depends on it.

A former journalist herself, Zelizer has co-written a new book, The Journalism Manifesto (Polity Books, 2022), focused on how once-fundamental rules of journalism have become outdated, and are actually doing a disservice to the reality they seek to present.

So what can be done about it? 

We spoke to Zelizer about the central arguments that she and her co-authors – Pablo J. Boczkowski, Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and C.W Anderson, Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds – make for why, and how, journalism urgently needs to change.

Barbie Zelizer
Professor Barbie Zelizer

How did this book come about?

We put this together as a call to journalists and journalism scholars to fundamentally rethink what journalism is about – what it's for, what they think it's doing, what they think it's accomplishing – and to reset what journalism is all about in liberal democracies.

It's a conversation that the three of us are having amongst ourselves: if we were to tweak what journalism looks like in the public imagination, what would it look like? The way that we see forward is to offset the irrelevance that journalism has become mired in. 

We come up with two suggestions: One is the reformist path to profoundly change some of the fundamental bedposts on which journalism rests. And the second is the revolutionary path — to throw them out and start again. Both are better than carrying on as if nothing has changed. Inaction or maintenance of the status quo in journalism, we argue, is simply no longer sustainable.

Journalism has been in a state of ongoing change and upheaval for decades. What made now a particularly salient time to write and publish this manifesto?

In the last few decades, journalism has faced complications that have undermined its smooth functioning on every plane – political, economic, legal, social, cultural, you name it. That’s the situation. It’s a kind of “breathe deep” moment of where do we start in correcting from anew?

Looking at and studying journalism today has become more and less important than it ever was before. It's more important because everybody's looking at journalism. It's less important because many people who are looking at journalism are really disenchanted with what they're seeing. We wanted to unpack a major tension, which is the idea that journalism in our heads isn’t the same thing as journalism on the ground. If we want to be thinking more assertively and productively about what journalism could be, we have to start with that basic tension.

How would you summarize the key arguments of The Journalism Manifesto?

In our heads, journalism lives in a lengthy environment of fictions: It’s adaptable to change. It offers robust responses to all kinds of challenges. It's autonomous. The public it serves is identifiable and stable. It has reliable expertise and robust notions of public service. It has a workable codes of ethics and healthy norms. 

We carry these notions around in our heads, but none of them, we would argue, are attainable.

Journalism's way of being in the world is not realistic. It's unsustainable. We can look at that in terms of all the power dynamic shifts that we've been experiencing just in the last four years, whether we're dealing with declining democratic governments, or the shifts in power dynamics that were pushed by #MeToo or the Black Lives Matter movement. Things are shifting all over right now. Institutions are slow to change with those currents.

Our argument is that if we're going to see journalism survive, it needs to rethink just about everything it holds central — its priorities, relevancies, default values, and engagement with society. That's really where the book starts.

What aspects of journalism do you find have become particularly outdated?

Elites, norms, and audience. All of these figure centrally in journalism’s sense of self in largely Western or global Northern liberal democracies, and each of them are fatigued. They need to be cast aside and rethought. We argue that the reliance on elites is faulty, and that it furthers journalism’s reliance on sectors of the public that aren’t representative. We argue that the reliance on norms isn't helpful because norms are thought to unfold in a perfect aspired condition that isn't at all reflective of what journalists are actually going through. And we argue that the audience isn't there in the way that journalism has typically thought or expected.

What is preventing journalistic institutions from changing?

This book argues that four illusions keep journalism from acting differently: it thinks that it’s honest, it thinks that it's central in ways that it's not, it thinks that it's cohesive, and it thinks that it's permanent. All of these are part of the larger disjunction between what we're seeing and what we'd like to see.

Current times involve so many challenges for journalism. It doesn't have the cues to cover a devastating pandemic. It doesn't have the tools to recognize or articulate the rise of autocratic governments in places where liberal democracies tended to reign. It doesn't have the capacity to think critically about long-standing racism or the oppression of other communities. It doesn't have the capacity to think about a deepening climate emergency. Journalism is ill-equipped to deal with all of the things that are constituting such immediate crises right now.

When we say that journalism isn't very reflective about its positionality, there are three things that are the source of its inattention. One is that the newsrooms have pretty much remained in place, unchanged. The second is that the marginalized groups in newsrooms haven’t been attended to – whether it’s women, persons of color, queer identities, indigenous populations, or precarious labor forces that have very little agency. And the alternatives to these newsrooms – the melded, hybrid newsrooms of the global South, or the anti-normative decisions that journalists there need to make in order to survive – have also escaped attention. There's a threefold target of inattention whereby journalism hasn’t focused on what's most important. As the outside of journalism is changing, if journalism doesn't change too, it's only going to dig its own grave.