Newsrooms And The Power of the “Woke” Cohort

A summary of ReNEWS’ conversation on culture wars and the mainstream news narrative

Amy Selwyn
4 min readJan 29, 2021

Two weeks ago, ReNEWS launched with a pilot program entitled, “Culture Wars: Are They Co-opting The Mainstream Narrative”? A virtual event featuring four speakers: journalist Bari Weiss, formerly of The New York Times; journalist Suzanne Moore, formerly of The Guardian; Katie Herzog, journalist and co-host of the podcast Blocked and Reported; and social psychologist, professor and bestselling author, Jonathan Haidt.

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Our reflection panel — a group of executive news editors from around the world to reflect on the conversation and bring in the perspective of journalists and newsroom staffers — comprised Phil Chetwynd, Global News Director for AFP, one of the world’s largest news agencies; Mapi Mhlangu, former Executive Editor for eNCA South Africa and now CEO of MInsight in Johannesburg; and Francesca Unsworth, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC.

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While ReNEWS is non-political and non-partisan. we are exclusively concerned with divisive, polarizing socio-cultural issues and how newsrooms deal with them: everything from language to online bullying, and from the fear of the Twitter mob to greater representation from a spectrum of voices, including the right and the left.

Here are some headline thoughts and conclusions from our first conversation:

  1. Our sense-making institutions — like The Fourth Estate (media) that are necessary to a society to uphold the liberal order — are in danger of being taken over by a single, deeply ideological “woke” cohort. There is a fear, expressed by each of our speakers (and then reflected on by our Reflection Panel), that mainstream news editors feel pressure to adhere to a predetermined narrative, which is driven by the woke orthodoxy.
  2. Bari Weiss said, “The old liberal ideal that held that ‘Reporting the news without fear or favor, striving for objectivity’, has given way to ‘blinding moral clarity’ in which stories that do not advance what is perceived as progress are seen as ‘traitorous’”.
  3. Around the world, many news editors are under pressure to accommodate the ‘woke’ agenda, fearful that if they do not, their journalists will be at risk of online harassment (and possibly worse), their organization will be targeted and, ultimately, trust in their news content will be diminished. (Perhaps that sentence should read that trust in the news content will be further diminished.)
  4. As a result of this overarching sense of fear, there is often a genuine hesitation in taking on difficult and awkward stories. As Katie Herzog commented, “A free press that is unwilling to tackle difficult out of fear is not free at all. That’s not just bad for the industry, but bad for society and democracy.”
  5. The speakers pointed out, each in their way, that what is at risk here is that liberal values may be replaced by illiberalism in society…and in newsrooms: an intolerance to all but politically correct language, story angles, sources, photographs, etc.
  6. The Reflection Panel drew on their daily experience of running large, complex newsrooms. Some of the most important messages emerging were that feelings are not facts; personal feelings or lived experiences of the journalists themselves do not belong in the news report; and journalism is not the same as activism.
  7. One of the key points arising was the noted generational difference. For younger journalists, in particular, where they have come from university backgrounds and where the concepts of Critical Theory and safe spaces have been integral to their university experiences and perhaps even syllabi, there is a wholly different and incompatible world view. There is greater value put on “Truth” than on objectivity, whereas in a legacy organization newsroom, objectivity is an unquestioned aim.
  8. Jon Haidt noted, “Everything has a purpose, a telos. Younger academics and journalists, in particular, seem to have a different telos. That telos is social justice or equality of outcome. And while it’s admirable in many ways, it is a corruption of the traditional telos of journalism.”

Our conversation flew by, to be honest. Many participants noted, “Wow, this could have gone on for hours!” We are grateful to our speakers and to our Reflection Panel. They brought personal stories, candid and critical observations, they challenged orthodoxies, they listened to each other and they shared ideas.

ReNEWS will continue to bring short, 90-minute conversations to our rapidly growing community of followers. If an issue is socially divisive, it is something we will look at…through the lens of what it means to newsrooms and to journalistic practice. Often, we’re not looking for answers. Rather, we’re looking for ways to explore and to help unpick the obstacles to clarity.

Our next conversation will take place in late March/early April. We plan to announce the date and the topic in the first week of February.

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