PhD Candidate at Northwestern University

Researching Journalism in a Trump Presidency

I started grad school in 2013. At the time, when I told people I researched journalism, they responded with polite curiosity. I'd usually have to ask whoever I was talking to where they get their news and what they thought of those sources to prod them to see the subject as something that affects their lives. Unsurprisingly, all that's changed in the past year. Now when I tell people about my research, they shake their heads and wish me luck. 

I got into journalism for selfish reasons. I wanted an excuse to ask people questions, and write about them. When I realized the stability I expected journalism to provide no longer existed, I pursued academia because I thought it was another way to do what I wanted to be doing. I've never considered that my work might actually help people or institutions, because I find the idea incredibly presumptuous. But after one week of President Trump, it feels disingenuous, and a little cynical, to research the news as though I have no stake in what my final product accomplishes. And, like countless others, reading each day's headlines makes me feel so helpless in the face of so much awfulness. 

So now seems like the right time to be honest: I hope that the work I do helps journalism improve its credibility and its impact among an increasingly polarized and distrustful audience. I say that knowing full well that the problems facing journalism are many, the mechanisms by which journalism can change society for the better are ambiguous, and the chances of a researcher illuminating any of these in a meaningful way are slim. But at this moment, I'd rather come off as delusionally self-righteous than deliberately dismissive.

I've spent the past few years researching journalism's attempt to reinvent itself without a real dog in the fight. Now, more than ever, I'm rooting for its success.

ThoughtsJacob NelsonComment