February 13, 2017

SIPA’s specialization in Technology, Media, and Communications considered this question at a February 7 panel discussion among Karen Attiah MIA ’12, global opinions editor at the Washington Post; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation; and Marcus Mrowka, assistant to the president for strategic communications at the American Federation of Teachers. Anya Schiffrin, director of the TMAC program, served as moderator.

Although the media climate has changed dramatically since Donald Trump was elected president, the panelists suggested that nothing is completely new. Attiah cited the Nixon years as a previous example of a time when the government also withheld truth and the media worked hard to expose it.

Each panelist offered key insights on how he or she believed the media should disseminate facts and critical analysis of current events and policymaking.

“The Trump administration wants to delegitimize, perhaps dismantle, or even destroy the media,” said Attiah.

This is especially worrisome, she explained, because a “structural hollowing out” of the media had begun in recent years, as newsrooms were gutted and the line between news and entertainment became increasingly blurred. The result, she said, was that broadcast news provided only shallow coverage of actual issues.

Attiah articulated some of the thoughts journalists are thinking today. Media professionals, she said, are trying to avoid being overly emotional as they react to the daily flow of tweets, executive orders, confirmation hearings, and more. They are also working hard to connect with the public as citizens’ political engagement grows stronger.

Mrowka said he was heartened by seeing people across the country voice opinions on what the future of U.S. public education might look like with Betsy DeVos as the federal secretary of education.

“We’re seeing parents, groups who normally stand on the sidelines,” he said. “Something was unleashed in that nomination that we’re going to try to take advantage of.”

The Nation, said vanden Heuvel, is exploring ways to engage Americans on a wide range of topics. Among other things, the magazine’s journalists will visit Youngstown, Ohio, on a listening tour. It also will be introducing a culture beat.

Vandel Heuvel said that social media matters, noting that Trump’s tweets have often allowed him to “win the morning” — meaning that he dominates media professionals’ time and resources as they rush to cover the president’s posts. But social media can also have a powerful impact on constituencies, she argued, when “aligned with journalistic scrutiny, integrity, satire, and humor.”

“We are not the only gatekeepers of what is important and relevant to people’s day-to-day lives,” Attiah said.

Mrowka agreed, emphasizing the importance of teaching students to think critically and interpret current events. He said he and his colleagues at the AFT are providing support for teachers and students to tell today’s stories in their own words.

The panelists discussed how values are one of the most crucial lenses through which people interpret facts. To reach bigger audiences, Mrowka said, the media will need what he called “entry points”—because people want to receive information from trusted sources, people who share the same values.

According to Attiah and vanden Heuvel, both the Post and the Nation value staff diversity and encourage a range of perspectives. Opinions, furthermore, are clearly labeled, and facts are the heart and foundation of all publications. But they said that additional perspectives and voices are not only welcomed, but needed.

A final theme of the discussion was the importance of quality media coverage at the local level.

Attiah warned that the disintegration of local news outlets over recent years has reduced the ability of people to expose stories in their own communities, and shifts power to large media conglomerates.

Overall, the panelists called for deeper connections between American citizens and the media to better bring out stories reflecting the true diversity of experience in the United States.

— Kasumi Takahashi MPA ’17

Pictured (from left): Karen Attiah, Anya Schiffrin, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Marcus Mrowka // photo by Dino Sossi