What We Need to Make Democracy Work

Published Mar 20, 2024

Longtime Washington journalist Jesse J. Holland talks with Jess about changes in journalism and communicating science in the age of social media and “alternative facts,” and what we can expect as the 2024 US election cycle swings into gear. This is the second episode in UCS’ ongoing 2024 election cycle coverage.


Journalism has a long and storied history in American politics, and before the term “alternative facts” entered the lexicon with all its attendant baggage, many of us took factual reporting for granted in our country.

Since the halcyon days of Woodward and Bernstein and Walter Cronkite, journalism has morphed with the times. It’s never been more difficult for journalists to adequately inform the public about issues in science, technology, and democracy, and yet I would argue that with the advent of the 2024 election cycle it’s never been more crucial. In the words of Cronkite himself, “journalism is what we need to make democracy work.”

I’m your host Jess Phoenix and this is…SCIENCE.

Jess: My guest today is Professor Jesse J. Holland of George Washington University. Jesse's work as a reporter, author, and TV journalist has taken him everywhere, from the halls of Congress and the White House to the wilds of Wakanda, yes, that Wakanda, to the studios of C-SPAN. He's been a distinguished visiting scholar at the Library of Congress, and his work has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Jesse has reported on the most fraught issues of our times, and, with the 2024 election cycle in full swing, he's well-positioned to draw back the curtain on the role of journalism in an era where alternative facts and opinion hold more sway than data, evidence, and expertise. Thanks so much for talking with me today, and I'd love it if you could start by giving us a little background on what journalism was like when you first arrived in Washington, and kind of compare it to the situation facing reporters today.

Jesse: When I first came to Washington, D.C., in 2000, I came in at the end of the old-school, three-martini lunch reporting style. The old Watergate-style reporting was just ending when I got to Washington. The style of reporting that I was taught when I was in journalism school at the University of Mississippi, and the style of reporting that you have to do now, frankly, post-pandemic, is completely different. Back when I started, face-to-face conversations were the only way to do it. Now people talk over videoconferencing software, they talk over text, they talk over email, and those were ways that we would have never conducted business when I first started. But one thing you can say about journalism is that it always changes, but as long as we hold to our core principles of telling the truth as we know it, and as we can prove it, I think the medium doesn't matter as much, as long as we hew to those principles of only reporting what we can prove, not just what we think or what we thought may have happened. I teach the old notepad-and-pencil, "someone said this, someone did this in this day." It's a whole 'nother conversation if you want to talk about the opinion side of the business. You wanna talk about the Rachel Maddows and the Sean Hannitys. I don't teach that. I teach the who, what, when, where, why, and how, and how-do-you-know-this-person-said-this style of journalism, which is still necessary. Most Americans, I think, enjoy opinionated articles more than they do the old-style, who, what, when, where, why, and how. But of course, you can't have an opinion unless somebody tells you what happened at the meeting. So, the style of journalism that I'm still teaching is still 100% necessary for every other style to exist. Because no matter what else, I think our country still needs that.

Jess: I've heard that many Americans aren't aware of crucial political happenings, for example, when journalists were interviewing people in states that were having primaries on Super Tuesday, people were asking, "Oh, who are the Republicans and the Democrats going to run for president?" Do you have any insight about that? Are we talking messaging problems, or is it too much competition for voters' attention, or what?

Jesse: We are being bombarded every day with a flood of information, I'm not even gonna call it facts, information, some true, some not true. So, it's becoming harder and harder for the average American to figure out what they should be listening to. Am I going to listen to "The Daily Show," or am I gonna listen to the 7:00 news? And we were lucky, growing up, where there was probably four basic television channels. You had ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Those were the only ones you had. And you were lucky if your town had a morning paper and an evening paper.

So, the silos for information that went to the American people were very small. Everyone had the same information because they didn't have options to find anything else. Now, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of streaming networks and streaming channels, and the internet has turned everyone with a computer into their own media service. So it's harder for people to figure out who they should listen to. So, sometimes that kind of information gets missed because there are so many options. Now, I'm not advocating for there to be fewer options. But I think where we in the media passed up on a great opportunity was, when the internet first became popularized, nobody taught media literacy. No one said, "Here are the things that are important, that you should listen to, you should read, you should get your information from." So, we're still playing catch-up on teaching Americans the difference between disinformation and information. And as soon as we teach one thing, a new front opens up, for example. It takes between 20 and 50 years for Americans to realize that a certain thing can possibly lie to them. So, let's go back and think about Orson Welles and "War of the Worlds."

Radio was new. So, people thought everything they heard on the radio had to be true. And it took a while for people to figure out that, you know, everything on the radio doesn't have to be true. Well, along comes television. And for a while, people thought everything they heard on television had to be true. If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be a fact. Well, eventually we figure out that there are people who can manipulate Americans through television. And we learned not to believe everything we heard. Then the internet comes along. And for a while, if you read it on Twitter, if you read it on Facebook, people thought it had to be true. So, we're just now getting to the point where we're teaching Americans that everything you see on X, sorry, I said Twitter, everything you see on X, everything you see on Snapchat, it's not true. But just as we're getting Americans to believe this, AI comes along. That’s why you see such an active effort from media companies to try to explain to people, just because you see a commercial with Joe Biden and Donald Trump hugging each other doesn't mean that really happened. So, we're actively trying to report on things that are going on, and trying to advance media literacy and understanding at the same time. And frankly, with the volatility, I'll just call it the volatility of the journalism industry, we don't always do both very well. But we're trying, because, especially with an election coming up, we're spending a lot of time trying to educate Americans right now that every video you see, with a celebrity, or with a candidate, or with a foreign leader, all those videos might not be true. You can't just believe it because you see it. Now, just to be clear, you and I are not AI. Let's be clear. But, there's going to be a lot of stuff coming up over the next few months, as we go into a presidential election, that we're going to have to double-check before we believe, as the song goes, our lying eyes. Because just because we see it doesn't mean that it's gonna be true. And that's an area that we in the media have to do better about teaching Americans. For me, that's the biggest change in journalism from when I came to Washington, that we actually are doing more of a educational part, for non-journalists. When I first got to Washington, we just reported. Now we have to educate and report.

Jess: That is a tall order for anyone…we're seeing that in the scientific community, too. Scientists used to be a little bit more cloistered away, and now it's, we have to do outreach, we have to communicate. I wanted to talk a little bit about the omnipresent issue of alternative facts. It is a phrase that makes both scientists and journalists pretty queasy. How have you seen journalism as a practice shift in response to this subjectification of reality?

Jesse: As I suspect with many scientists, there was a time where we thought our work should speak for itself, that we weren't needed, as people, or spokespeople, or advocates for our industries, because our work should speak for itself. And we've learned, and we're learning, that not speaking for your work, speaking up for your work, means that the people who need to hear it are only hearing from the people who are trying to tear it down. This is something that many of us were uncomfortable with. Because the traditional journalism school says the one person you should never know what they think is the reporter, because their work should speak for themselves. The reporter's opinion has nothing to do with what they're writing. But, we're at the point now that everyone in their respective industries has to be willing to publicly defend their work. In the past, we would have said our work speaks for itself. Either you believe it or not. But lies spread faster than truth, so if we allow people to just lie about what we do, it is going to color how people who don't understand what we do feel about it. You can't have only one voice talking about your work. Somebody has to be willing, whether they feel like they're appropriate or not, to speak up and say, "Hey, you know, I've spent years studying this. Here's what I think. And I can prove it through this information."

Jess: Because scientists haven't always been media-savvy, do you have any best practices that scientists can use to help journalists convey the significance and credibility of stories to the general public?

Jesse: The tactic I tell the journalists, and by the way, this is a tactic that scientists should also put in their arsenal, I tell my students to ask experts to talk to us like children. Because, most of the time when I'm talking to an expert or a scientist, they're used to talking to other experts. So, they're not used to, and I hate using this phrase, but it's the honest truth, they're not used to dumbing down their conversation for someone who has no idea of what they're talking about. They're used to talking to people on their equivalent level, and explaining to people who don't need the background. But in journalism, not only do I need to be able to understand what the expert is saying, I have to explain to somebody else who knows even less than I do. So, what I tell my journalism students is to say something along the lines of, "Explain it to me as if I'm a 12-year-old." Because if I can't understand it, there's no way I'm going to be able to explain it to my readers or my viewers.

Jess: So, about stories, and stories that include science, what have you seen? What sort of resonates with people these days?

Jesse: When you're talking about telling stories, keep in mind that journalism is literally storytelling. We're not stenographers. We're not going to write down every single word someone says, and regurgitate every single word back to our readers, our viewers, our listeners. What we're looking for is we're looking for those gripping stories, those tales, those anecdotes that will stand out and make someone want to continue to read, watch, or listen. Many times, in journalism, especially when we start out, we're trying too much to be informative, and not enough to be entertaining. Because, it doesn't matter how much information I put in my story if no one will read it. So, I'm always pushing for my students to realize that we're not just informing the public. We're also trying to entertain them as well. One of the examples, and I came up with this theory while I was covering the Supreme Court, was, the spinach-filled Ho-Ho. Now, for your audience, some people may know, some people may not know, a Ho-Ho was a little chocolate cake, with filling on the inside of it. And my theory was, when I was covering the Supreme Court, that the Supreme Court wasn't very entertaining.

Nobody likes to sit and read dense stories about, with Latin terms, and information that really doesn't apply to everyone all the time. But I could get them to eat the spinach, which was the actual law that was going on, by surrounding it with chocolate, with entertaining stories. So, I would try to find something in every Supreme Court case that was an interesting story, or an anecdote about how this case got here. Or, here's what could happen if they rule this way versus that way. So, I could get you to read what I wanted you to read, which was the legal part, by surrounding it with goodies. We have to learn to find the good story in what we're doing, and surround it, and on the inside, put what we need people to know. So, if you're a scientist, or you're an expert, that needs to talk about something that may be dense, may be a little complicated, I promise you, if there's something entertaining about that thing you can say, if you hand that anecdote to a reporter, I guarantee you that it'll make the reporter more likely to write about the thing you really want them to know later on in the story. Because, once again, it doesn't matter how important the information is. It doesn't matter how crucial the discovery is, if no one will read it, if no one will watch the piece, if no one will listen to it on the radio. We have to give people things they want to hear, and suck them into eating the spinach, by putting the Ho-Ho around it.

Jess: Things are changing. Newspapers are, in some places, dying off, and cable news isn't what it used to be. Can you sort of crystal-ball for a moment, and give us a glimpse of what the future might look like for journalism, and how regular people are accessing and engaging with really critical news stories.

Jesse: The thing I can say is that journalism will always exist. There will always be the need for someone to represent people at things that the people can't get to. There will always be the need for it. The medium will change. Just as, in our lifetime, it's changed from print and newspapers and magazines to pretty much all online organizations. Television is about to change, with the creation of AI television hosts. If you want to really be impressed, go watch Channel 1. Channel 1 is a new network that has all AI news readers. They don't have any human beings on screen. AI has gotten to the point where they can put an AI host, and someone write the script, and the AI reads it just like a 5:00 news host would.

One of the things that I see coming down the pike specifically is more individualized news. Just like today, we all choose our own entertainment. We don't just watch ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS. We now have all of these different streaming networks, where we can choose what type of entertainment that we want to watch. Also, we all watch them on our own individual screens, instead of sitting around a television with the family…no one's watching the same thing anymore. News is going that way, where we're going to all sooner or later be able to choose the individualized news that we want to consume. For years, we have been able to have a nationwide conversation, where everyone knows what everyone else knows. Those days are gone. In the past, people accepted the news that was given to them. Because they had no choice. There were no options. So, I think it's gonna become more personalized. And just to be honest, I don't think this is a good thing, because I think we need to, as a country, all have a common base of information we're working from.

Jess: Again, back to this election cycle, what are the key storylines that you think we're gonna see around the environment, climate, and technology?

Jesse: Given the two presumptive candidates that we have, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, I think of course we're going to hear a lot about, from the Republican side claiming that attempts to better the environment are detrimental to business. On the Democratic side, there's always a question of how much they're going to actually talk about the fact that under the current president, we now pump more oil than we have under previous administrations. And we'll hear a lot of conversation back and forth about the preservation of federal land. We'll hear a lot of talk about land rights, because that's a huge deal in the West, about who owns what land and what can you do with the land that you own?

I don't know whether these will be the main conversations during this presidential election. I think it's going to actually circle around the economy, and age. Because we will have two of the oldest presidential candidates in history running against each other, and everyone is concerned, especially when it comes to presidential politics, it's always, "It's the economy, stupid." People want to know that is there hope for our lives to be better in the future? Unless something changes, those will be the main topics of the presidential election. But these environmental issues. Fracking. Who we are selling our oil to, and who we are importing our oil from. Climate change. I mean, while there are still some people who don't believe that our climate is changing, the wildfires, the hurricanes, the weather, I think is making a pretty good case for there being actual climate change, and us, as human beings, actually needing to do something about it. And that's where these issues of sustainability, climate change, and environment come in.

Jess: What role do you think journalism today has in making science accessible and understandable for everyday people?

Jesse: I mean, I frankly think that's one of our jobs as journalists, to bring to people ideas and things that they would not have known otherwise. One of the things that I appreciate the most is journalistic organizations that still have science sections, that still have health sections, where you can go read about the things that you yourself would never have known if somebody hadn't come along and tried to explain it to you. That's literally what we're supposed to do in journalism. We're supposed to find those interesting things that are going on in science, find those interesting things that are going on in health and technology, and bring it to the American people, so we can talk about it, and see where we're going, and have a conversation before we get there. There needs to be more science journalism. There needs to be more climate journalism. There needs to be more technology journalism out there. But we need to find a way to have this conversation between the experts and the American people, so we all can be comfortable with where we're going, and know why we're going there.

Jess: That's brilliant. All right. I kind of have a final question that I like to ask people when they come on this program, because we are The Union of Concerned Scientists. So, Jesse, why are you concerned?

Jesse: Wow. Okay. I am always concerned about what world I and other people are leaving behind for the future. I have a 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, so I spend way too many hours wondering about what the world will look like when they leave the nest, when they finish college and they're ready to go out into the world, what have we left behind? What should we be doing now to make the world better for future generations? I've always been concerned about journalism in this standpoint, because we're basically watchers, not doers. We're watching what other people are doing, and we're telling people about what other people are doing, but what is it we're actually doing ourselves to make the world better? And I'm wondering when I have a great, great, great grandson or granddaughter, will they be able to say, "Here's something that my great, great, grandfather did, that helped us and the world in the future?" I think we really need to think more about what we're leaving behind more than what we have.

Jess: So, I didn't tell you it was a two-parter.

Jesse: Oh, a two-parter!

Jess: So, the second half is, what are you doing about that concern?

Jesse: This is one of the reasons why I do as much writing as I can, because one of the things that always concerns me is the number of stories and knowledge that is being lost every day, through the death of our elders. This is one reason why I started writing nonfiction, because, when I moved to Washington, in the midst of covering all of the politics I was covering, I was hearing all of these stories about contributions of African Americans to the Capitol and to the White House, but they were only being shared verbally. They were only being shared orally. And the problem... Oral storytelling is great, but the problem with oral storytelling is that the story dies when the storyteller dies. So I wanted to take these stories and make them permanent, by writing them down. This is why I still do nonfiction. I love doing my fiction, my Captain America, my Superman, my Black Panther. But this is why I will never give up the nonfiction, because there are other stories out there that I want to tell before they are lost. Because of course, you're doomed to repeat history if you don't remember it. I consider my journalism and my nonfiction writing my way of making the world better by recording the stories that happened, so the world knows, "This is what happened then. We shouldn't make the same mistake." So, I'm hoping, rather vainly, that my writing will be my contribution to the world and to future generations.

Quick good news update about Episode 9, Something Strange In Your Neighborhood. Ethylene Oxide, a cancer-causing chemical widely used to sterilize medical equipment and some dried food products, will now be subject to an EPA rule that could cut harmful emissions by up to 90%. Our work to limit harms of ethylene oxide isn’t done, but this is a big step forward to stop Americans’ exposure to this deadly chemical. Go science advocacy! Thanks again to Anthony Eyring and Omari Spears for production help, and I’ll catch ya on the flip side, Science Connoisseurs.

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