Political intimidation, at-risk media, and the future of journalism

In the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, Barbie Zelizer, director of Penn’s Center for Media at Risk, discusses how journalists can be better prepared and why the media culture needs to shift.

Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center for Media at Risk
Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, is also the director of the Center for Media at Risk.

The death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who went missing more than two weeks ago after he entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, offers a reminder—once again—of the risks such media practitioners take, particularly if their work paints a different picture of their subjects than those people wish to portray. 

Barbie Zelizer thinks about these challenges every day, not simply in the context of her former role as a Middle East–based Reuters journalist, but also in her current position as director of the Center for Media at Risk at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication

The Center, which officially began in April but had been in the works for much longer, aims to foster conversations and solve problems related to the political intimidation of journalists, documentarians, people in the entertainment industry—anyone who works as a digital practitioner. 

In the wake of Khashoggi’s death, Penn Today spoke with Zelizer about what it means to practice journalism today, how that has changed, and what it foretells for the field. 


You have a background in journalism?

Yes, I worked for Reuters. I lived in Israel for about 16 years, but that was a different time. That was the time of the peace talks. It was a very different moment, a great moment to be a journalist. I stopped in 1984, and I came to Penn in 1986.

Given your experience, the situation regarding Jamal Khashoggi must strike a chord. How did you react when you heard? 

It’s horrible. This is just…the brutality of this is just above and beyond, but unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. It’s not happening in a vacuum. Media practitioners have been at risk for as long as they have been practicing. What is different is that we’re more aware of what’s going on in different places around the world. Part of that has to do with technology, but also the boundaries between us and them, between democracies and autocratic regimes, those boundaries are no longer that clear.  

It seems like it’s more dangerous than ever to be a journalist. Do you think that’s actually true, that it’s our perception, or maybe it’s a little of both? 

There’s no question that we’re more aware of these situations now, but journalists have always been at risk. Paradoxically, because we are more aware, we tend not to pay attention to it as much. All of this really hits at the core of something we need to recognize: If we don’t have journalism, we don’t have democracy. The kind of environment we’re in now has swept that under the rug and led to extreme acts against journalists in many places around the world. If you look only at the last two weeks, there are seven or eight countries where journalists have been harassed or threatened or killed. We now have a climate in which that happens all the time. 

Has the current political mood caused this?  

What we’re seeing in the media right now did not start with the current administration. It became more apparent with Donald Trump. It became more abhorrent with Donald Trump. But the patterns toward what we are seeing now have been in the making for decades. There are so many things embedded into assumptions of how we work the news that they have to be rethought from the get-go. Were they a problem under Obama? Sure. Were they a problem under John F. Kennedy? Sure. These have been long in coming, though the particular stew of circumstances today—including the political climate and technological speed—has played into the worst of these models, and there hasn’t been a shift. 

Until something does shift, how can journalists protect themselves? 

There’s not an easy solution. How do you mute the competitive urge and still stay on task, still keep your job? What media practitioners need to understand, writ large, is if they don’t adapt, if they don’t figure out different cues for their behavior, they’re going to be extinct. I believe some folks believe that in their hearts; they see it, but it just isn’t translating it into practice.

Practically speaking, what does that mean?

First of all, there is no such thing as a press corps in many democracies, and by that I mean a press corps in the old sense, the folks who’d watch each other’s backs. Where are they? Certainly, they are invisible in the United States. The media have to bolster each other’s ability to do their tasks rather than competitively edge each other out. It’s amazing to me, as a former journalist but also as a historian, that we’re not seeing this. 

We’re also not seeing the kind of adaptable models for journalistic behaviors that should be coming forth. Journalists are going by professional cues that make them ill-equipped to deal with the situation today. That includes deference and moderation, objectivity and balance; these ideals that are the exact wrong tools to deal with this climate. In reality, there has to be a wholesale, widespread reimagining of what media practice looks like in a political climate that’s far less transparent, far less ethical, far more convoluted and obscure and ill-minded than many models of journalism have previously assumed.

What role does the Center for Media at Risk play in all of this? 

We’re trying to bring folks who don’t normally speak into conversation with each other. Practitioners and media-assistance organizations and scholars, folks from different places in the world. We know that, globally, media intimidation doesn’t work the same way, nor do practices by which practitioners resist intimidation. And by political intimidation, I mean any situation in which media practitioners are put at risk and obstructed from being able to do the task they’ve set out to do. 

It’s hard to say this in the midst of what just happened in Turkey, but we’ve tended to look at the most extreme cases. It’s not that that isn’t important, but we need to be starting from the least-extreme cases of intimidation as they affect all kinds of media practitioners, even something as relatively small as trolling, any kind of online harassment. The argument goes, if you can get it at its smallest, as its least-extreme manifestation, maybe it won’t get to the more extreme. 

Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and the director of the Center for Media at Risk.