What Does the Attack on Democracy Mean for Journalists?
Alum and CNN political reporter Lauren Dezenski on the power of disinformation and the danger of living in news silos
How are you supposed to feel watching the city you live and work in come under siege by people who see you as the enemy and call for the murder of anyone in your profession?
For CNN’s Lauren Dezenski (COM’14), that was exactly the scenario she found herself facing as she watched rioters, incited by President Trump, storm the Capitol Building she’s been reporting on for the last two years. As images flashed across her TV screen of people draped in Trump flags smashing windows, as congresswomen huddled on the balconies above the House floor, Dezenski, a national politics reporter for CNN Politics based out of Washington, couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that such a routine event—certifying the Electoral College votes for a president-elect—had erupted into violence and chaos. “Watching the situation escalate was entirely surreal, with every development feeling like a further departure from reality,” says Dezenski, who’s been working remotely from the Midwest during the pandemic.
For Dezenski, who worked at the Daily Free Press during her years at Boston University, the week’s events put one thing into clear perspective: Disinformation is powerful, and it’s dangerous. It also raises the question: How are journalists supposed to navigate reporting to a public that doesn’t always accept fact as, well, fact? BU Today spoke with Dezenski about reporting in the era of “news silos.”
With Lauren Dezenski
BU Today: First of all, what was going through your mind as you watched the Capitol Building under siege?
Lauren Dezenski: I’ve been remote because of the pandemic, so I was not in Washington, but I followed every development on TV, Twitter, and behind the scenes. Watching this situation escalate throughout the late morning and early afternoon was entirely surreal, with every development feeling like a greater departure from reality. Worriedly messaging with colleagues about how “fortified” the Capitol is and that mobs had “breached” the Senate floor felt entirely foreign. Even the language is worlds apart from the typically dry pomp and circumstance of legislating—since when are “breaches” an actual thing? But it was real, and my heart goes out to every single person that was literally under siege in and around the building. I was terrified watching the footage from thousands of miles away, and truly commend the courage of those covering it, who—through it all!—stuck to their work and still filed dispatches into Thursday’s early hours when the Electoral College certified Joe Biden’s win.
Journalists chronicle the first draft of history. And they, especially the photojournalists, put themselves in harm’s way to capture for the entire world what happened in Washington on Wednesday. If cameras didn’t record these scenes, would you even believe it happened?
Another note about the Capitol grounds: When I first moved to D.C. from Boston, I lived about three blocks from the Capitol complex, and would frequently go for runs or walks on the grounds, believing it to be one of the safest places I could go. The hill on the House side was a prime sledding spot whenever Washington got a surprise heavy snowfall. I’d take my parents and friends to visit the Capitol at night whenever they visited. As a Washington resident, seeing this chaos in such a typically safe place was disturbing.
BU Today: The events of last Wednesday demonstrated the power of disinformation for all the world to see. As a political reporter, how are you supposed to navigate reporting in an era when so many people are picking and choosing their facts?
Lauren Dezenski: I really wish there was a simple answer to this. So many of the people in that crowd deeply believed the lies they were being told, whether it was from the president, their preferred news outlet, or a combination of the two.
I’m aging myself here, but I remember as a freshman in COM 101 back in fall of 2010 a professor talked about how someday people could exist in “news silos” where they would only get information attuned to their personal views and preferences. I thought it was hyperbolic. But now 11 years later, it’s clear we are dealing with those very consequences.
BU Today: Speaking of, the media’s response to the siege has been interesting to see. Some talking heads were shocked, some were completely unsurprised, and some were trying to pin the destruction on Antifa. Do you think there’s a world in which the divide between right-wing and so-called “mainstream” media is bridged? What would that take?
Lauren Dezenski: I can’t speak for the media as a whole, but I hope this serves as a gut check. As my colleague Daniel Dale put it Wednesday, lying has real consequences. It’s a real reminder that we must constantly work to hold both audience attention and respect—and dispel dangerous, false narratives.
BU Today: Finally, as someone on the politics beat, what are you looking forward to as we enter a new presidential administration?
Lauren Dezenski: I’m looking forward to witnessing yet another peaceful transition of power and covering the dynamics of a post-Trump Washington. Congress is going to be full of intrigue in the coming months as President-elect Biden grapples with enacting his agenda with narrow majorities in the House and Senate—not to mention the ongoing pandemic. And the midterms are just around the corner.