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What think tanks should learn from journalism

May 13, 2021 #Insights
What think tanks should learn from journalism
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This article first appeared in the OTT Annual Review 2020-2021.

Few industries have been more radically transformed by the digital revolution than journalism. We can talk about falling advertising revenue – but at a more fundamental level, this change has been characterised by a revolution in the information ecosystem.

This has implications for think tanks. The parallels between the challenges they and mainstream media face are stark:

  • Both are having to come to terms with a world in which their hard currency — facts and data — no longer command unanimity.
  • Both are distrusted by the populist left and the populist right, accused of being vehicles for the establishment.
  • Both are having to re-examine what their commitment to principles of objectivity, impartiality, and non-partisanship means in a world where fact and truth are no longer absolutes.

Compared to think tanks, it is clear that traditional news is at the sharp end of the revolution. However, both operate within the same information ecosystem — and in time think tanks will have to address the same fundamental challenges. We must learn from the experience of mainstream media.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis

In the late 2000s, Tom Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg put forward the idea that literate culture as we understand it was the anomaly rather than the rule – an anomaly that started with the invention of the printing press, and has been brought to an end by the advent of digital media.

Prior to Gutenberg, culture was mainly oral, and more fluid, less fixed. The permanence of print brought about stability. A small number of publishers, acting as information gatekeepers, provided authority and reach. This was perpetuated across radio, and then TV.

The digital era, in which everyone is a publisher, has undermined the role of the gatekeeper. Mainstream media have lost their high-category status – they are now just another voice in the marketplace of information.

In these circumstances it’s very difficult for people to decide who to believe. The notion of a single, contained, objective truth had been intrinsically connected to the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Pettitt and Sauerberg argue that in the absence of God(s) – who underpinned trust in the pre-Gutenberg world – the digital revolution is suffering from a crisis of authority.

So where will this new authority come from? The jury’s still out. But new hierarchies will emerge. They will rise from the new networked ecosystem. They will be more numerous, less permanent, and primarily personality-based. In a flattened ecosystem, organisations will have to earn our attention – and those that rise to the top will be those that have built their brand.

We’re already seeing a reshuffle of the cards. Convergence in that some journalists are doubling up as social media influencers – and finding that authority comes from commentary rather than reporting. Also, divergence in that being a journalist is no longer a guarantee of influence in itself.

Post-journalism and the Overton window

Last November, media scholar Andrey Mir proposed the idea of ‘post-journalism’. He argues that the shift from the classical journalism of fact to a post-journalism of opinion is the inevitable conclusion of the digitisation of news.

Post-journalism, he argues, ‘mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business necessity required for the media to survive’. The poster-boys for this shift are the New York Times (NYT) in response to the election of Donald Trump and The Guardian in response to Brexit.

The challenge facing the centrist mainstream press under Trump was the same as the challenge facing centrist mainstream think tanks: how to remain relevant when the current information ecosystem is pulling the rug from under your feet, and half the population questions the very foundations on which your business is built?

To our mind, this begs the question: does the NYT’s and The Guardian’s change in approach suggest that impartiality is only a viable approach when you’re inside the tent? Is it a luxury afforded only to those who fall within the Overton window?

Those whose positioning falls outside the Overton window are by definition arguing for a paradigm shift – de facto, they have to embrace advocacy. They can’t afford to be impartial.

Those on the edges of the Overton window are unashamedly advocates. This is precisely what made Rush Limbaugh so effective. This is also what empowers the Cato Institute and the Adam Smith Institute on one side of the think tank aisle, or the New Economics Foundation and (increasingly) the Institute for Public Policy Research on the other.

For decades, the Overton window has fitted squarely around an urban, socially liberal, broadly white, elite agenda. The Guardian’s and NYT’s values reflected that. So do centrist think tanks’.

Since the 2007/08 financial crash, we have witnessed a shift of the Overton window away from that centre of gravity. The mainstream political and media elite failed to recognise this before 2016, and were caught flat-footed.

A choice for think tanks

The NYT’s and The Guardian’s shift to advocacy is a recognition that the Overton window was drifting away from their positioning. They were faced with a choice:

  1. Remain impartial by reflecting the new centre of gravity of the political debate; or
  2. Stay true to their values but adopt a more advocacy-focused approach.

Option 1 would have meant loosening the ties with their urban, liberal values – a hard sell for their readership. Instead, they embraced Option 2 – advocacy – in a bid to remain true to their values while staying relevant. And relevance means survival.

Think tankers will draw their own conclusions about whether the NYT or The Guardian have managed to maintain their journalistic standards of impartiality, or whether they have been sacrificed at the altar of this more assertive approach.

There is perhaps a lesson here for think tanks. Where do you currently fall in relation to the Overton window? If you’re squarely within it, keep calm and carry on.

If not, however, sooner or later you may be faced with the same two options.

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