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When Authoritarianism Rattles Journalism’s Supposed Foundations

Sat, May 26, 14:00 to 15:15, Hilton Prague, Floor: M, Karlin I

Session Submission Type: Panel


Creeping authoritarianism — in the rise of authoritarian personalities and tendencies, disinformation campaigns, and the poisoning of democratic discourse — is becoming a feature of concern in places presumed to be among the most open and democratic. These authoritarian elements, while still incremental and inchoate at this stage, have particular consequences for journalism, in the form of growing harassment of journalists from both citizens and government officials as well as gnawing and sanctioned public distrust of the press as an institution. While journalists have long faced intimidation, threats, and even violence in many parts of the world, what happens when journalistic risk becomes a salient concern even in the U.S., the U.K., Northern Europe, and other places otherwise thought of as bastions of free expression? Indeed, how can we draw on lessons of authoritarianism from less democratic environments to better assess both emerging threats to established democracies as well as persistent threats to transitional ones? This panel addresses such questions by exploring the nature of such risks for journalism and journalists amid creeping authoritarianism. Our purpose, in part, is to open up a series of research questions by which journalism studies may better account for and make sense of an emerging moment of political precarity for journalism in supposedly “safe” locales.

Barbie Zelizer opens this panel by arguing that journalism constitutes a prime target of risk because much of its predominant mindset leaves journalists unable to notice its proximity. Silvio Waisbord follows by contending that, because foundational arguments about journalistic practice were developed in the North Atlantic during a late-20th century period of relatively centrist, elite political consensus and a lack of media abundance, models of news production need to be revised both to make sense of today’s chaotic media environment and to assess how journalism contributes to or challenges the present upsurge in authoritarian politics. Next, Herman Wasserman shows how, in transitional countries emerging from authoritarianism such as South Africa, journalism can fail to live up to its democratic promise when captured by elites, often mirroring social and political polarizations even as it exposes creeping authoritarian renewal in young democracies. Then, Katy Pearce, who studies media technologies in less democratic environments, provides an overview of the media management techniques by authoritarians, for purposes of comparison with more democratic environments. Finally, Seth Lewis closes the panel by offering a research agenda for studying journalistic risk, drawing on his ongoing study of online harassment faced by U.S. journalists.

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