An unprecedented year and what it means for journalism in 2021

Journalists faced new obstacles and rose to new heights in 2020. What will the news look like in 2021?

“The speed of the news cycle was a new kind of dizzying. If you missed a day (or even a few hours) of news, you felt like a stranger in a foreign land. If it’s tough for those of us whose job it is to keep up, imagine the person who reads a couple headlines during their lunch break, or catches a few televised newscasts a week.”

I wrote that for CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter looking back at the year that was… 2017.

If I had only known what 2020 would bring.

It’s easy to forget that the year was off to a ferocious pace before a global pandemic, worldwide protests over racial injustice, and an Election Day-turned-Week-turned-Month. In January alone, wildfires still raged in Australia, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, and the House held the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

Journalists faced new obstacles and rose to new heights in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic placed pressures on newsrooms that transitioned to remote work. Broadcast anchors set up makeshift studios in spare bedrooms while reporters joined frontline responders to tell their stories.

When it was clear we were entering a generation defining moment, the public service instinct of journalism overrode its profit motive. Electronic news sources lowered their paywalls making essential coronavirus information free to all.

The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project provides the most complete state-by-state data available. My local paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, publishes a free weekly coronavirus bulletin in Marshallese, to inform a community that accounted for half of virus-related deaths in Northwest Arkansas during the summer, despite making up just three percent of the population.

But this service comes at a cost. Ad revenue vanished almost entirely in the spring and summer, and recovery has been slow. Bloomberg perhaps had the media biz headline of the year declaring “The Biggest News Story in the World Costs Journalists Their Jobs.”

(A friendly reminder at year’s end to do our part as journalism educators and support public broadcasters, nonprofit journalism projects, and the newsrooms doing the sort of excellent reporting we want our students to take part in.)

Depending on your beat, the torrents of misinformation regarding the pandemic were either shocking or totally expected. The polarization of our times took no exception to a public health crisis. If anything, our isolation and desperation led to an environment where conspiracy thrived. Journalists suddenly found themselves taking a political side by communicating recommendations from health experts to wear a mask and social distance.

As we knew we needed to stay home, reporters masked up and took on tense situations. Journalists trying to cover racial injustice demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd were arrested by police and attacked by protesters. As campaign season kicked into gear, broadcasters had to decide whether to place crews at indoor Trump rallies where basic health precautions were ignored and the president celebrated violence against journalists.

News coverage of elections has been criticized over the decades for formulaic campaign norms and homogenous pack journalism. But the 2020 presidential election was one like no other, and challenged the press to rewrite the playbook. Candidate Joe Biden kept an unprecedentedly low profile to avoid spreading COVID-19 at traditional campaign events. Meanwhile President Trump contracted the virus. Party nominating conventions were primetime Zoom meetings. One of the presidential debates was canceled.

Nothing was ordinary, and that would carry over into Election Night. Broadcast networks and cable news channels prepared viewers weeks in advance for a drawn out decision, due to a record-setting number of mail-in and absentee ballots. Despite a brief period of betting market calamity, anchors and analysts kept calm and reminded us of the process that played out exactly as experts had forecast.

Since then, media have been in an almost constant battle against disinformation about the result of the election. After four years of the Trump presidency, 2020 has ended with a dramatic shift – media have stopped giving oxygen to the fire.

Twitter and Facebook have cracked down on posts from Trump and his allies that baselessly undermine election integrity. When the president used an address during the national evening newscasts to claim the election was rigged, they all immediately cut the feed and fact-checked in real time.

Even Fox News – at least its news side – has poured cold water on deep state conspiracies and ill-fated legal challenges, making a lane for even farther-right media to cut into the longtime cable news king’s market share.

So what’s ahead for news media in 2021? A more normal world, one can hope. But how that’s handled leaves many possibilities.

Just as journalism served the public interest in covering the depths of the pandemic, it will begin 2021 with the hope of recovery. They’ll continue to ask real questions – a sizable portion of the country is skeptical of the vaccine, and making sure oft-neglected poor, transient populations aren’t overlooked again will be a challenge.

What will the news be like without Donald Trump? Has four years of Trump hardened political reporters to remain highly skeptical and adversarial, as the role requires? Or will the return to normalcy lead to softer coverage of a Biden administration?

What of the economics? Trump was undeniably a boon to the media business, especially national outlets. How does cable keep those ratings? How do the Times and Post keep those subscribers? With an outgoing adversary-in-chief, the impacts of a COVID-19 economy are already being felt in left-wing media, with the late-year exodus at Vox and sale of HuffPost.

What happens to right-wing media is tougher to predict – does the splintering continue, or do conservatives reunite against the common enemy of a Democratic administration?

Two things are certain. As media researchers, we’ll study it all. As journalism educators, we’ll prepare students to face these challenges head on.

Here’s to a healthy, hell-raising 2021.

This essay was written for the Electronic News Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. It will appear in their Winter 2021 newsletter.

Cover photo: Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason refuses to remove his mask to ask President Donald Trump a question at a press briefing in September. Photo by Sarah Silbiger for Reuters.

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