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Looking Back on 2018, Journalists See Mostly Noise

Ellen McGirt
Looking Back on 2018, Journalists See Mostly Noise

There was one thing everyone agreed upon when they reflected on the noisy news cycle of 2018: Stop covering the President’s tweets.

“Trump is the biggest news story for everybody, “ said Alison Brower, the deputy editorial director for The Hollywood Reporter, speaking on a panel of five veteran journalists at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Tuesday.

Jessica Yellin, the former chief White House correspondent at CNN, confirmed that the chaos was worse than in previous years. “It’s more crazy now because there is more noise and the media is in a place where it chases noise,” she says. Click-and-eyeball-obsessed media are an easy target for “a president who is brilliant at exploiting them.”

But the price is a less engaged, more anxious, and under-informed public.

“Analysis means something totally different now,” said Maeve Reston, a national political reporter currently at CNN. As a result, news consumers don’t get enough deeply reported stories or meaningful follow-up from vital ones, like the condition of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “You are constantly pulled from one thing to the other and it’s hard to have a continual thread,” she said. “Trump drives the agenda in terms of what people talk about.”

Part of the issue isn’t just attention span, the panelists agreed. In a world which is filled with truly difficult news, context is queen. And we need more queens.

Joanne Griffith, assistant managing editor for digital at Marketplace, says social feedback from their audience about breaking news helps them to plan the more substantive stories that they know their audience needs, even if they don’t ask directly for them.

“It’s important to put a stake in the ground,” she says. Marketplace diligently covered what Griffith calls the Four Ts in 2018: Trump, trade, taxes, and tech. But as anxious economic chatter increases, it’s time to dig into the archives. “What can we learn from [the recession] from ten years ago?” she says. “How can we visually tell a story and write original stories for our audience?”

Also top of mind in 2018 was the #MeToo movement, a seismic event which is still reverberating a year later, part of the energy that drove women both to become candidates and to vote. But as the firehose of #MeToo stories took over, reporters rushed to report, assess, and verify them. “Not all the stories are credible,” says Brower, and some are credible but can’t be verified. But she says, “the most important stories are the hardest to tell.”

Which is part of what makes the noise so literally upsetting.

Yellin, a 15-year news veteran said she’d been initially coached to watch ESPN to learn how to cover politics. “I was told to focus on jargon, outrage, competition, and anxiety,” she said of how CNN framed political coverage. Why? It attracts men from age 18-35, a valuable demographic for advertisers.

But that style of coverage is off-putting to other demographics, including women.

Tina Exarhos is the chief content officer of NowThis, a two-year-old social news publisher that focused initially on aggregating news and now plans to produce more longform content. “We are focused on what will connect with young people,” she said. But it also means serving up journalism in Snapchat, a popular platform for young adults to be social and not stressed. “How do you give them good information in a way that doesn’t make them feel anxious?”

Yellin, who is the founder of a new media startup called #NewsNotNoise, says that when information is presented like a sporting contest, it compels women to avoid the news. “How we deliver news empowers men,” she says. “Women feel triggered and less confident.”