The Challenges of News Reporting in an Election Year: A Q&A with Dean Cobb in Columbia Magazine

Jelani Cobb, the dean of Columbia Journalism School, Peabody Award–winning filmmaker, and longtime staff writer at the New Yorker, discusses the complexities of journalism in 2024.  

Editor's note:

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2024 Issue of Columbia Magazine

Lorraine Glennon
May 08, 2024

There’s nothing like a presidential-election year to fire up the media. Does this mean people will be paying more attention to news? And does journalism still shape voters’ thinking on issues? 

I do think people will be paying attention to news; they’re already paying attention. And yes, journalism does shape the way voters think about issues, but it no longer shapes it as it once did. Today’s journalists are competing with information sources from all over the spectrum, many of which are not reliable, not vetted, not professional. So the perspectives people have on what happens in the election will realistically be some combination of information they receive from high-quality, vetted news sources and an array of misinformation and disinformation that has proliferated since the 2016 election. 

One hypothesis about this glut of mis- and disinformation is that it arises from the siloing of news consumers around dubious sources that simply echo their own preconceptions. 

Siloing and people’s reliance on news that most closely conforms to their worldview is certainly one factor. That has been a problem going back a century or more, to the days of the “newspaper wars,” when even smaller American cities had several daily newspapers, each aimed exclusively at a specific type of reader who disliked and distrusted the readers of all the competing newspapers. That pattern continues, and has intensified, in the digital age. But the other factor is the dearth of information, period. We are dealing with the siloing problem in the context of news deserts. Increasingly, in communities all over the country, citizens have no access to local news. That exacerbates the problem. 

These news deserts presumably reflect the financial struggles of the news business across all media. Dwindling advertising revenue has triggered layoffs, cutbacks, and outright shutdowns at hundreds of media outlets. Is there a positive side to this grim picture?

The challenges to journalism are significant, there’s no doubt about that. And yes, the predominant concern is resources. But even as we’re grappling with these difficulties, we’re also seeing an unprecedented level of innovation. It’s important to keep track of that. We have an emerging and vital nonprofit sector in journalism. News organizations such as Documented [a nonprofit digital-news site focused on immigration founded by Max Siegelbaum ’16JRN and Mazin Sidahmed ’16JRN] are experimenting with novel methods of dissemination, sending out targeted information to their readers by text message. We have not seen this much innovation on the technical side of news in easily a century. 

We still need to figure out how to create sustainable news organizations outside the ecosystem of social media, but there are success stories. The Texas Tribune is the nonprofit news website that people point to most commonly, but there’s also VTDigger in Vermont and Sahan Journal in Minnesota [founded by Mukhtar M. Ibrahim ’17JRN], among others. These are news organizations that have sprung up in the aftermath of a serious decline in institutional news in those locations. They have broken news, covered important stories, and figured out how to staff up and find a stable financial model through a combination of philanthropy, memberships, and public events. 

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