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IRH Lecture: Sue Robinson “How Journalists Might Care”

March 15, 2021 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

“How Journalists Might Care: Identity Work in Engagement Practices Toward Trust Building for a Failing Industry”

Sue Robinson
Race, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity Fellow (2020–21)
Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, UW–Madison

Reporters are taught to care only in the abstract – about democracy, audiences, government institutions, etc. They are taught a “Grand Virtue” kind of caring, with dominant values like objectivity and the American Dream. They are taught not to care about individuals or issues in their neutrality. Any evidence of this latter kind of “caring” results in discord within the profession, such as when Black reporters were told they cared too much about Black people to cover Black Lives Matter movements. The profession, operating under this paradigm, is failing. Its core failure reflects a breakdown in trust between news brands and their audiences. A new paradigm of “engagement” entered the industry as a possible way forward, emphasizing relationships where before there were only audiences. This latest obsession with engagement has prompted huge influxes of funding, trainings, and programs for those journalists adopting new audience-centric norms and routines. Journalists must become more caring in their engagement with audiences, says one segment of this work, and trust shall naturally follow.

But I have found that journalists engage – and care — in much different ways according to their identities as racial, aged, able-bodied, sexual, moneyed, educated beings. Individual reporters enter newsrooms bringing with them histories of caring – personally and professionally, both as care givers and as care receivers. These differences result in non-uniform manners of trust-building, resulting in a hodgepodge mixture of practices under the ever-increasing umbrella of engagement strategies. This work explores the notion of engagement toward trust-building by interrogating journalists as caring – and uncaring — people who must reconsider how they do journalism. This idea, still under construction, culminates from four years of collecting material from interviews, focus groups and surveys with hundreds of journalists in search of how they trust people, and what their trusting approaches might mean for the news industry’s survival. If we approach the problem of news-media distrust from an identity-based paradigm, we can be more effective with our responses toward resolution. Ultimately this care work offers one of the dimensions for a theory of journalism engagement that I am building in my book project, How Journalists Trust: A Theory of Engagement.

Dr. Sue Robinson (Ph.D., Temple University, 2007) holds the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism endowed research chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. A former journalist for more than a decade, Robinson teaches and researches journalism studies, power and privilege, digital technologies, and mediated ecologies as well as race and media. She is the author of Networked News, Racial Divides: How power and privilege shape public discourse in progressive communities (Cambridge University Press, 2018). She is at work on two additional books, including one on the post-journalism era with Oxford University Press and one about how journalists build trust and report according to their identities. Her research is meant to be applicable to “the real world” and thus, Robinson nurtures partnerships with newsrooms, non-profits, and organizations that are trying to change problematic structures and systems. Some of her collaborations have been with: the Minority Student Achievement Network, Freedom Inc., Lussier Community Center, Goodman Community Center, Kettering Foundation, Hearken, Democracy Fund, Knight Foundation, the Aspen Institute, Membership Puzzle Project and Trusting News.

[Due to COVID-19, this event has been moved to a digital conferencing platform. To participate please send an email with your name, university affiliation, and how you heard about the event to IRH at info@irh.wisc.edu.]