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Columbia Journalism Review Spring 2021

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) encourages and stimulates excellence in journalism in the service of a free society. Published by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, CJR examines press performance as well as the forces that affect it. The bimonthly magazine offers a deliberative mix of reporting, analysis, criticism, and commentary.

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United States
Columbia University in City of New York
4 Issues

in this issue

3 min
editor’s note

The past year has been traumatic. Now, as vaccines are administered and businesses reopen, the world turns to renewal and rebuilding. The journalism industry is no exception. Since last spring, for all the excellent pandemic reporting we’ve seen—coverage that saved lives—the media’s shortcomings have also been on painful display: the inability to focus on multiple, interconnected stories; a willingness to be distracted by demagogues and disinformation; the shameful silencing and sidelining of audiences and colleagues of color. We now face a choice between an incremental return to where we left off and a more fundamental transformation of what we’re about. “What Is Journalism?”—this digital edition of the magazine—takes us down that second path, and we hope it will raise fundamental questions for you, too. It is the most ambitious digital project we’ve…

1 min
the people we call journalists

Some reporters are given credentials, by a government or a private organization. Increasingly, technology companies like Facebook are taking on the role of deciding who is a “verified” news source. But it’s not always clear which outlets and personalities to take seriously; follower counts confer dubious authority, and the line between journalist and social media influencer has blurred. A reporter might be anyone who comments on the news or has an item of gossip to share. That can get dangerous, when false claims go viral. It can also be uplifting, in communities where people have taken it upon themselves to fill gaps in coverage—rejecting the idea that journalism means chronicling events from the periphery, and instead telling stories from within.…

20 min
they really like me

Most every weekday, Philip DeFranco sits down in front of a camera to face the internet. Behind him is what looks like a man cave: red walls; a black leather couch with red and silver throw pillows; “industrial chic” knickknack shelves showcasing a globe shellacked in black paint—the aspirational style of a frat house president. Thirty-five, with a pomaded swoop of brown hair, DeFranco often wears hoodies, sometimes tie-dye ones with slogans like EMOTIONALLY EXHAUSTED or DON’T BE STUPID, STUPID. He greets his audience with the same line he’s used for years: “Sup, you beautiful bastards?” DeFranco is the host of an eponymous show on YouTube that aims to deliver the news in about fifteen minutes. Episodes have covered Russian hacking, Donald Trump’s tweets, Tom Cruise’s on-set COVID-19 safety rant, YouTuber…

9 min

In the aftermath of the deadly Capitol insurrection, technology platforms were forced to acknowledge their role in poisoning the media atmosphere, as the principal distributors of digital news and the sources of so much misinformation. Facebook, Twitter, and Google acted as they never had before: Twitter flagged Donald Trump’s incendiary lies, removed some posts, then suspended his account; Facebook banned him for inciting violence. Overnight, Web hosting services dropped Parler, a social network popular among right-wing extremists. The platforms that had delivered and sustained a toxic presidency were now abandoning their most mendacious hitmaker. The great deplatforming of January 2021 had an immediate effect: in addition to Trump, thousands of conspiracy-theory accounts disappeared from the internet. It felt like a turning point that technology companies had long resisted, until the pandemic…

6 min
as i see it

When Kamille Whittaker began working on Canopy, a journalism project in Atlanta, she thought of something she’d studied during her undergraduate days, at Howard University: Mbongi, a Congolese learning practice. The idea of Mbongi was to “gather around and talk about ideas, but nobody was the teacher or the student; everybody was contributing,” Whittaker said. She thinks of it as a space with no walls. The ethos of Mbongi guided Whittaker, who is Canopy’s fellowship director, as she reached out to six community members—most of whom had no formal journalism experience—inviting them to take part in a paid fellowship program that would pair them with a mentor to help them report the stories they wanted to tell. “Canopy started to form around this idea that there are communities that needed local…

1 min
journalism emerging through the cracks

In an ideal world, the news would be consumed not only within a certain bubble—“a self-created and self-referring class,” as Joan Didion once described it—but by everyone, everywhere. It would be accessible, in terms of language and form; intelligent and empathetic; interested in the places power comes from and where it slams down. Instead, we find that traditional models of journalism have struggled to reach people where they are. But unconventional means of delivery—installation art, Twitch stream, pirate radio—are flowering, carrying vital information where it needs to go.…