There are few phrases more annoying to me than what journalists say when they see some story they think has crossed some perceived line of quality, ethics, accuracy, or bias: That’s not journalism.
My 18-year-old Mazda is by most measures a pretty bad car: the AC doesn’t work, the side panel is rusting, it growls like an indigestion-struck bear, and the right-turn signal’s been busted since Obama’s first term. But you wouldn’t look at it and say: That’s not a car.
If you slap a moldy Kraft Single and some spoiled ham between two pieces of bread, the correct response isn’t to say: That’s not a sandwich. It is too a sandwich! Just a very nasty one you really shouldn’t eat.
That sort of over-rigorous boundary-policing is a byproduct of the rise of the objectivity norm in 20th-century American journalism. The sort of things that defined 19th-century newspapering — political ideology, authorial voice, the occasional duel between editors — became for many not just bad journalism but not journalism at all. It’s the production of innocence, defining what you are by pointing vigorously at what you are not.
Into that debate walks this new paper, published over the holidays in the straightforwardly titled academic journal Journalism. It’s by Patrick Ferrucci of the University of Colorado and Gino Canella of Emerson College. The title: “Resisting the resistance (journalism): Ben Smith, Ronan Farrow, and delineating boundaries of practice.”
In May 2020, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith critiqued Ronan Farrow, charging Farrow with practicing “resistance journalism.” Smith’s column generated significant discussion among journalists. This article analyzed the metajournalistic discourse that emerged following Smith’s column to examine how journalism’s boundaries are negotiated and contested.
“Resistance journalism” has three main elements: it is unobjective, targeted, and truth-bending. “Resistance journalism” falls outside of the boundaries of journalism, according to the discourse, due to three practices: it lacks verification, focuses on narrative, and has a propensity to advocate.
We argue that the current political economic and technological disruptions within digital media and networked society are creating new spaces for the rhetorical competition over journalism to occur, upending journalistic routines and creating hybrid journalism cultures.
Yes, happy new year, it’s time to discuss the metajournalistic discourse! (You should tweet about this story, if only to gain entré to the metametajournalistic dimension. Then I’ll quote-tweet your tweet and the world will explode.)
You may remember the Ben Smith column, which to be honest wasn’t one of my favorites. (I found Ashley Feinberg’s arguments compelling, and even if I didn’t, I don’t think what’s there is strong enough to merit a “Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?” headline. I also think “resistance journalism” as a label for reporting on sexual assault is odd; the “resistance” frame circa 2017, when these stories broke, was clearly about resisting Donald Trump, not sex crimes in Hollywood.)
By labeling Farrow a practitioner of “resistance journalism,” Smith was declaring him a creator of flawed journalism, I’d argue, not non-journalism. But Ferrucci and Canella see a binary boundary-crossing nonetheless:
While never explicitly defining resistance journalism, Smith contended that Farrow and other resistance journalists prioritize cinematic narratives and strongly advocate for causes at the expense of a complete accounting of the facts. Farrow and his ilk, Smith wrote, exclude “the complicating facts and inconvenient details” that would make a story less dramatic and more fair.
Resistance journalism, the article implicitly contended, does not properly represent journalism’s normative ideals. These charges catalyzed significant media coverage. Summarily, without articulating it exactly, The New York Times labeled resistance journalism, and, therefore, Ronan Farrow, outside the boundaries of journalism.
(I shake my fist in the authors’ general direction for this, but let’s move on.)
Boundary work was less important to journalism in the era of publication scarcity — when, in a given city, only a handful of outlets might be producing news at scale. (A newspaper or two, three TV stations, some news radio.) Defining the limits of journalism mostly meant asking: Do you have a broadcast tower or a printing press?
Now, conversely, “in an open media environment that presents no limits on who can publish, journalists cite norms not only as identity markers of the professional newsworker, but also as boundary markers between professionals and nonprofessional.”
Oftentimes, the distinctions drawn between legitimate and non-legitimate practices include the following: professional ethics (i.e., objectivity and verification), narrative style, and principles such as independence and accountability.
In an era of technological change, however, scholars and practitioners are constantly redefining appropriate and inappropriate journalistic practices — often to understand journalism’s role in a democratic society.
Now, though, the boundaries are no longer solely (or predominantly) defined by those already “inside” the field. Because everyone can publish, people outside the field can seek to shift its accepted norms — or create entirely new boundaries that only tangentially overlap with traditional journalism’s.
When a new genre defies collectively held norms, many in the field will argue that its practices are outside of journalism’s professional boundaries. The current networked media environment is complicating this boundary-setting process in several important ways: The spaces where journalists maintain their authority have expanded; the deteriorating labor relations in media have placed journalists and news organizations in precarious economic situations; and algorithms and social media are fracturing publics into niche audiences.
Because journalism increasingly occurs through online networks, journalists are in regular conversation with activists, social movements, and grassroots media makers. Castells (2007) described actors who challenge institutional authority as forces of counterpower. These actors exert counterpower within networked society by demanding that journalists reexamine their newsgathering routines and update their language.
Think of all the challenges that have been made by readers and activists to “traditional” journalistic practices. Don’t cover the existence of climate change as a story with two equal sides. Don’t reflexively accept the police’s version of events. Don’t skip over the larger systemic forces behind what prompted the story you’re writing. Don’t treat authoritarian or anti-democratic ideas as just another acceptable part of civic debate.
Those all come from a broadly defined left, but they can come from the cultural right too: Don’t assume that everyone in the audience is a secular college grad who works in a blue city just because you are.
For this study, Ferrucci and Canella “collected all published articles from news outlets and trade publications that reacted to Smith’s article for the three weeks following its publication in the Times,” 27 in all — from Fox News and CNN to NPR and CJR. The idea was to examine how “resistance journalism” — a term Smith left unclearly defined — was described and evaluated in those pieces as a way to understand how journalists think about the term.
I am reminded of the difficulty of defining a term that’s created or used by people who oppose the thing they’re talking about. For example, you’d find it hard to find an American who says they are strongly in favor of “political correctness,” because “political correctness” is (a) a frame used almost entirely by people who think it’s a bad thing, and (b) a term that could mean any of a thousand different points on some terminological spectrum. Does being anti-PC mean “I don’t like these new pronouns like ze and hir,” or does it mean “I should be able to call people n——s to their faces and get no blowback for it”? Different people will bring different assumptions.
I say that just to note that people who are “accused” of doing “resistance journalism” are unlikely to agree that, for instance, they are engaged in “truth-bending.” Anyway:
The most prevalent attribute of resistance journalism concerned its inherently unobjective nature. Objectivity, of course, is one of the fundamental characteristics of professional journalism, but journalists in this study believed resistance journalists did not practice this norm. Instead, resistance journalists very clearly take a side.
One article argued that resistance journalism is always “on the right side of social media reaction.” Implicit in this quote is that this emerging genre of journalism approaches its subject from a clear perspective, and that the journalists practicing it permit or tolerate “no dissent and questioning,” which is “perhaps the single most destructive path journalism can take.” If journalists craft a story with an angle in mind or a side of the story they wish to highlight, it comes across to readers as blatantly one-sided.
Essentially, the discourse argued that although this practice negatively affects the field of journalism, it could possibly help individual journalists. One journalist wrote that taking a side which may be popular with certain demographics or audiences can become a positive individual attribute. He wrote, “affirming (progressive) orthodoxies can be career-promoting, while questioning them can be job-destroying. Consider the powerful incentives journalists face in an industry where jobs are disappearing so rapidly one can barely keep count.”
The second commonly discussed attribute of resistance journalism is that it is targeted at specific individuals. While this attribute overlaps with objectivity, such that a targeted story inherently lacks objectivity, this element is slightly different. According to the discourse, resistance journalists identify unpopular powerful people and target them with incomplete stories that they know most readers will enjoy because the subject is so universally disliked.
Most journalists report on and discuss U.S. President Donald Trump negatively, and some journalists in the metadiscourse claimed that he has been a primary target of resistance journalists. Purveyors of the resistance genre, they argued, publish numerous untruths about the president without repercussion because he is so unpopular with readers.
For example, one journalist wrote that because a certain type of person is unpopular now — primarily, men in positions of power — this means that reporters are “not only free, but encouraged and incentivized, to say or publish anything they want, no matter how reckless and fact-free, provided their target is someone sufficiently disliked in mainstream liberal media venues and/or on social media.”
In other words, if the public, especially ones who follow “the liberal media,” dislike someone enough, resistance journalists can publish stories about that person with near impunity. One reporter wrote that “journalistic standards have been consciously jettisoned when it comes to reporting on public figures who, in Smith’s words, are ‘most disliked by the loudest voices.’”
Although Smith was quick to point out in his column that Ronan Farrow was not a “fabulist,” he did argue that Farrow takes liberties with his stories. This critique appeared often in the discourse when journalists argued that resistance journalism does not necessarily publish lies; rather, it slightly bends the truth to prove a point. For example, resistance journalism often hints at and suggests “conspiracies without citing any direct evidence to back them up.” In this way, a lie is not told, but an unsubstantiated claim is disseminated.
The discourse argued that this type of journalism is “particularly dangerous in an era where conspiracy theories are increasingly commonplace.” Journalists articulated this idea by claiming that President Trump spreads many untrue conspiracy theories which are “quickly debunked by most of the mainstream media.” This, however, often leads to “Trump’s enemies” spreading truth-bending conspiracy theories, which are “never denounced by journalists because mainstream news outlets themselves play[ed] a key role in peddling them.”
(I think it should be noted that, while this paper looked at 27 different pieces, 11 of the 12 direct quotes the authors highlight in the sections I’ve quoted here are from a single piece by Glenn Greenwald, who, whatever you think of him — I have thoughts! — certainly has a very particular view on these questions. The man gives good quote, but I don’t know how useful it is to take his thoughts as broadly representative of the, er, metajournalistic discourse.)
Beyond those three qualities, Ferrucci and Canella also identify three practices these pieces associate with “resistance journalism”: a lack of verification, a focus on narrative, and a propensity to advocate.
The discourse concentrated on both Farrow’s journalism specifically, and also on what journalists considered resistance journalism generally. To the journalists, “Farrow had not corroborated several specific accusations” in his reporting. This practice, not relying on verification, stood out to journalists as a key feature of resistance journalism. They believed that verification is at the heart of journalism and that without it, the writing is not actually journalism.
In the discourse, resistance journalism neglects the “fundamental principles of corroboration and rigorous disclosure,” which are absolutely essential. The discourse noted that while reporting can be entertaining, “reporting, on all topics, does need to be careful, and accurate”…
Verification, historically, is an irreplaceable characteristic of journalism. Resistance journalists who do not practice it, therefore, place the genre outside of journalism’s normative boundaries.
The second practice of resistance journalism that falls outside the boundaries of normative journalistic practice concerns how the genre’s focus on narrative style often comes at the expense of the most truthful account of a story. In other words, resistance journalism sands “the inconvenient edges off of facts in order to suit the narrative (it) wants to deliver.” Journalists argued that Farrow’s style is indicative of the entire genre. As one reporter wrote, “Smith not only asserts that details matter, but that Farrow’s alleged carelessness is a pernicious example of a wider problem” in resistance journalism.
The main contention here is that resistance journalism often hues very closely to another genre that the field of journalism as a whole believed outside of the boundaries of the profession: new journalism. In that genre, most popular during the 1960s and 1970s, creative non-fiction authors such Tom Wolfe told stories with cinematic flair; these narratives, however, often left out inconvenient facts. Resistance journalism, then, often “eschews the messy complexity of truth in favor of dramatic and oversimplified narratives,” and it prioritizes “storytelling to the point of ignoring necessary facts.” Fundamentally, by focusing on producing the most cinematic or movie-like narratives, resistance journalists end up shaping “truths to have the greatest impact, possibly at the expense of some truths.”
The final practice of resistance journalism that the discourse identified as outside of the boundaries of journalistic practice concerned the genre’s inclination to advocate. For example, discussing a specific example of resistance journalism, one author wrote that the “reporting confirmed exactly nothing about the charge in question. And that should have been enough to ensure the story would never run. But run it did — because the goal wasn’t to get at the truth,” but rather to advocate for a conclusion. By advocating for causes or interest groups, resistance journalism takes the profession “away from fact-based reporting” and “toward speculation.”
Essentially, in its mission to advocate, the genre oftentimes cannot use facts — because either they do not exist or they are too difficult to verify — so readers are left with conjecture, something that traditionally would not fit within the parameters of journalism. This practice speaks to the “increasing popularity of a certain type of agenda-driven journalism,” one that is a “perfect description of a media sickness borne of the Trump era that is rapidly corroding journalistic integrity and justifiably destroying trust in news outlets”…Advocating for causes or issues, therefore, is a practice that journalists believed to be outside the profession’s boundaries.
First of all, let me raise what I think is a methodological problem here. I don’t think it was a good idea for the authors to lump all of these pieces — some straightforward news stories from outlets like the AP, some opinion/analysis pieces from digital news sites, some rote claims from right-wing media — and see them as describing an internal debate within the journalism world. (The authors say they chose not to “identity names of journalists or outlets — the goal is to understand the discourse of an entire industry; individual journalists cannot define the field’s norms…By excluding this identifying information, the specific outlets are given the same explanatory weight and the field at large is represented.”)
That bit about a story where “reporting confirmed exactly nothing about the charge in question…the goal wasn’t to get at the truth”? That’s a John Podhoretz op-ed in the New York Post, talking about this 4,000-word Farrow/Jane Mayer piece on Brett Kavanaugh. Let’s just say reasonable people might differ with Podhoretz’s take there.
And aside from mixing up the ideological takes and the intra-journalism “dialogue,” a lot of the other quotes cited here are actually the writer summing up Smith’s piece, not making an argument of their own. For instance, this from the paper’s section on “lack of verification”:
…is actually pulled from this AP story that simply reports a claim made by…Matt Lauer:
I mean, Lauer is still technically a journalist, but I would suggest his thoughts on Farrow are not the most objective here.
The bit about “Resistance journalism…prioritizes ‘storytelling to the point of ignoring necessary facts’”? That’s from Feinberg’s Slate piece, and she’s just summing up Smith’s column, which the piece makes clear she thought was off-base:
And what about: “By advocating for causes or interest groups, resistance journalism takes the profession ‘away from fact-based reporting’ and ‘toward speculation’”? That’s from this Rolling Stone piece, and again it’s just summarizing Smith’s column:
Any of these elements could be interesting on its own — how conservative media talks about “resistance journalism,” how news stories sum up Smith’s idea of “resistance journalism,” or what journalists think about “resistance journalism.” But those are three different things, and what this paper has is more 1 and 2 than 3.
Beyond that: Imagine it’s a week or two before this Times column runs, and you ask a few random journalists to define what the phrase “resistance journalism” means to them. Would anyone in their right mind say: “Oh, you must be talking about Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Harvey Weinstein — the one that was subject to The New Yorker’s famously rigorous fact-checking process!”
Of course they wouldn’t. If anything, they’d probably talk about either explicitly left-wing outlets or anti-Trump bias in mainstream outlets. However strong you think Smith’s arguments about Farrow are, the talking points being echoed here are really much more about something else.
To be clear, Ferrucci and Canella aren’t endorsing these views about Farrow, or “resistance journalism” more broadly. They’re trying to be descriptive. As they note, what counts as “resistance” changes as time moves on:
This political economic and social context shows how journalists’ practices and their roles are intimately connected to media power. Editorial decisions, in effect, are political decisions, which are affected by the material social relations in which they occur. Choosing sources, editing information, and selecting which stories demand the public’s attention are practices that are deeply embedded in relations of power.
There is a long tradition of resistance journalism in the United States, and earlier resistance journalists were similarly accused by mainstream journalists of operating outside of traditional journalism’s boundaries. Ida B. Wells, for example, was charged with not being “objective” when she compiled data and reported on lynching in the 1890s. During this era, muckrakers exposed corruption and challenged corporate and elite political power, yet they were labeled radicals. How these journalists characterized information and framed stories revealed their commitment to justice and their willingness to acknowledge and challenge power.
Journalists often cling to long-standing norms to maintain their professional identity. Even when they embrace changes brought on by technological or economic shifts, journalists still attempt to not-so-subtly protect the boundaries of the profession — the idea of who is and who is not a journalist—by identifying practices that they believe are not part of the field; practices, such as blogging or citizen journalism. Oftentimes, these practices have been a fixture of the profession, but by claiming that they are not within journalism’s normative boundaries, journalists attempt to maintain their power within a changing profession.
Consequently, it is no surprise that journalists who build their professional identities around specific normative practices would also attempt to discursively categorize resistance journalists — reporters who use slightly different practices and conceive of their professional role differently — as outside the profession’s boundaries.
I think the Ida B. Wells example is instructive. She was advocating for something. It’s just that the something — Black people shouldn’t be lynched — is today so obviously correct that making such a claim is no longer treated as “advocacy.” Meanwhile, advocating for what was the mainstream view of Southern newspapers at the time — lynching is a legitimate way for white people to maintain control of Black labor — would be so obviously horrifying today that even Breitbart might not complain about you getting “canceled.”
But for me, that’s a sign that “resistance journalism,” if such a thing exists, is less about journalistic practices and more about different perspectives of reality. And that, in the end, is the core reason why more diverse journalism is better journalism.
Those Southern newspapers were owned and edited by white men. Who could be surprised that Ida B. Wells might bring a different perspective, a different set of lived experiences to her work than they did? Some people would (incorrectly) argue that being a Black woman made her “biased” on the subject of lynching. But how is she any more “biased” than white men who knew, if someone was going to be lynched in their town, it wouldn’t be them?
The same would be true in countless situations around the world. Roman Protasevich practices “resistance journalism.” So does Stand News, the pro-democracy news outlet in Hong Kong that shut down over the weekend after Chinese police raided their office and arrested senior staff. Does that mean they show a “lack of verification” or engage in “truth-bending”?
That’s why I think “resistance journalism” is a poor frame for where we are, or where we’re going. Resistance requires two forces, not one. Someone is pushing, and someone is pushing back, and you can’t evaluate one without evaluating the other. That’s less about the quality of your practices than the stances that you take — and how much power you have to advance them. You only see it otherwise if you’re under the mistaken impression that you’re the immovable object.