Masha Gessen (they/them) is a Russian-American journalist, author, translator and activist. They are a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of 11 books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.
By Kelly SMITS and Rachel NOTTEAU
- The news should be thought of as a function and a defining feature of local communities.
- The Covid-19 pandemic, which would have been a classic local news event, highlighted the loss of local news in the United States.
- Instead of focusing on local communities, the news coverage focused on numbers, actors, policies, and debates— topics that are abstractions of the news.
For Masha Gessen, the news is something that happens in your community when you’re not looking.
In Gessen’s session at the NPDJ conference, they highlighted the decline of local news, particularly in the United States, in the context of COVID-19 pandemic.
There were entire periods of the pandemic where events that happened in communities were out of sight and went unreported, Gessen said. Many people started relying on alternative outlets, such as mailing lists and social media over journalists’ reporting, to get information.
This has been one of the biggest tragedies for local journalism during COVID, Gessen said, especially because many readers know families and victims within their communities personally affected by the virus. Instead, the coverage has been focused primarily on numbers, celebrities, policies, and debates.
As a result, the media has contributed in imparting a sense that the news is not something happening to “us,” but, rather, something that happens to “other people,” Gessen said.
Right now, the topic of school re-openings, masks, and the Covid vaccine is one of the biggest news stories in the United States, Gessen said. This story has become highly politicized with major political parties getting involved. What makes it particularly striking for Gessen is the fact that it’s unlike any school board story to ever exist before.
For the past year, many journalists have been forced to work around sanitary restrictions by observing meetings over video-calling software, such as Zoom, and writing about people they have never met in person before.
« Not having face-to-face contact with sources for a year made us completely rethink storytelling, » Gessen said. They described how they would instruct interviewees to walk around their homes with their laptop or phone camera on so that Gessen and their colleagues could write about details they may have otherwise missed as journalists.
But even through these online solutions, Gessen highlighted the difficulty of connecting with people who are presented two-dimensionally on a screen.
This constant abstraction not only detracts from the ability to create meaningful stories, concluded Gessen, but also the very mission of journalism.