On May 19, 2021, the Rockefeller Center welcomed The New York Times International Correspondent Alissa Rubin to deliver the Bernard D. Nossiter '47 Lecture. Hosted by Alexis Jetter, Lecturer in the Departments of English and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Rubin discussed the causes and consequences of today's shifting perceptions of fact-based journalism, as well as ways in which readers and journalists can actively reshape their interactions with pieces of journalism for the better.
There are several changes around the world today— changes to way we communicate, changes to our politics, or changes to our media— that have reshaped public perceptions and consumption of journalism, creating what Rubin described as the "dismal" situation for journalism today. "The erosion of belief in mainstream journalism and the rise of more myth-driven media has accelerated over the past few years," said Rubin, noting the collision of two prominent trends: "a drop in the overall trust of major news organizations, and an ever-increasing partisan split, so that those who self-identify as more conservative or more liberal no longer trust the same sources."
Nowadays, said Rubin, journalists, who have maintained a decades-long perception of what has been considered "acceptable" news sources, are struggling to figure out how to maintain a broad audience; "if those who are suspicious of the media in general and the mainstream media in particular do not read what we write or listen to our broadcasts or watch our documentaries or podcasts, or if they do listen to them do not believe them… then what difference do we make?"
"If people either do not read what we write or immediately discount it," Rubin warned, "then a journalist's raison d'être—their power in the public square to add to the debate and to help people make sense of the complexities of modern life—is lost."
In order to understand the path forward, Rubin explained, it is critical to explore how we reached this point in the first place. The development of the internet, where articles on a singular issue can be published instantaneously no matter the location, has made it hard for readers to distinguish between articles that have been published secondhand or live from a crisis zone. Furthermore, fact-checking has become more difficult. "You can judge a publication's adherence to honesty by its corrections policy; corrections—forthright, thorough, and fast—tell you that a publication cares about its accuracy," Rubin explained. However, an increasing number of readers are unable to make such distinctions between reliable and unreliable news. Amidst this decline in an audience's ability to properly dissect and discern authentic media sources, Rubin highlighted the work of organizations such as the News Literacy Project who have dedicated their efforts to teaching students about critical thinking, analyzing news sources, and evaluating multiple perspectives.
Before working as an international correspondent, Rubin began in journalism as an investigative reporter in the United States. Speaking about Rubin's early work on issues ranging from abortion to the plight of farmers in the Midwest, Jetter notes that "It's really wonderful to look at the kind of insight and sensitivity that Alissa brought to all the stories she did." Examining her current work as a foreign correspondent covering the struggles of women in Afghanistan, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015, "you'll see the threads of that same sensitivity, that same exquisite ability to listen and capture and … to pull out the humanity from these places of such grotesque unimaginable cruelty."
However, Rubin notes, it indeed takes a conscious and very comprehensive effort to craft the stories she writes, particularly when she is reporting on a wide range of individuals to an even wider audience as a foreign correspondent. As such, she shares some of her own tips for riding the wave of shifting perceptions of fact-based journalism, based on the work of journalist Amanda Ripley, whose book "High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out" discusses how individuals deal with difficulty understanding "the other side."
First, Rubin explains, journalists must "ask questions that push the person being interviewed to look at the broader issues" rather than a binary yes/no or good/bad answer; this way, the reader can also process the individual's train of thought and embark on a deeper thought process of their own (as opposed to accepting a generalized yes/no response with little prior information), developing an informed opinion in the process. Second, said Rubin, journalists must "widen the lens" and emphasize context in the way they write about individuals and issues, underlining the importance of comprehensively understanding an issue and inviting a conversation from a variety of perspectives. Third, said Rubin, journalists must embrace "a sort of radical empathy;" "put yourself in the shoes of the person you are interviewing", she said, whether that person is a "battered women in Afghanistan" or a "person in Congress." In the process, the journalist invites the reader to actively explore a wider range of perspectives on critical issues. However, Rubin notes, this does not mean that a journalist must "los[e] track of one's moral bearings" or undermine the severity of the actions of the "unsavory characters" being interviewed. Finally, Rubin emphasizes, journalists must build trust with their readers, particularly when discussing issues about which readers may have some preconceived notions. Whether through the portrayal of details in a recognizable way or by gathering a wide range of voices on the ground, Rubin explained, an article must avoid sounding like "I'm handing down wisdom from Mount Olympus."
Ultimately, Rubin emphasized, "[journalists] owe it to our craft, to the reader, and to those we are covering to try to understand the full context in which people act as they do. There may be no true news as opposed to fake news, but for sure there is truer news, and that is what we should aspire to convey."
-- Written by Shawdi Mehrvarzan'22, Rockefeller Center Student Assistant for Public Programs