Psychological Strategies for Journalists
By Alexandra Kitty
Nova Science Publishers
In a time of AI and "deep fakes," in a time of fractious social relations, in a time of weakening formal journalism, what are citizen and other independent journalists to do to excel in their chosen (and self-assigned) work?
Alexandra Kitty’s authored text, titled Psychological Strategies for Journalists (2022), presents suggestions for how to navigate a difficult landscape. This work also provides ideas for self-care in a demanding profession. Kitty worked as a correspondent for Presstime Magazine (a monthly publication of the Newspaper Association of America).
In the introduction, Kitty dedicates the book “to the coolest cats in town.” Members of the 4th estate witness some of the most dramatic aspects of the human condition. They tell truth to power, enable public transparency, and are de rigueur for democracies. Journalists give voice and power to the public. They take risks in order to acquire the story.
Formal journalists receive years of training in higher education and much on-the-job training. They learn how to investigate and document. They pursue stories across society.
Citizen journalists are individuals from a variety of fields and backgrounds who also pursue stories, albeit on their own time and their own dime. Many are social influencers, such as through social media platforms and podcasting. They have much fewer access to resources (for research, for travel) and perhaps no access to legal counsel (or legal leverage to access information that may be unattainable otherwise). They are known for advocacy but not breaking major stories. Many are striving to stand in the gap where formal journalism does not have the resources or the standing or the interests to cover. Journalism is under financial duress, and many in the public no longer consume their news. This work reads like a book mostly tailored for citizen journalists but may have value also for those working formally.
Figure 1. Warped Podcast Mic
Journalism work is challenging. What is newsworthy? What are ways to find evidence in order to bolster a story, and how can a journalist navigate the legal environment in media? (Intellectual property? Reputation? Legal ways to record others? Privacy protections? Other media and other relevant laws?) How can journalists do their work in a litigious environment? What do they do in less-governed or ungoverned spaces? What about technical issues reporting from around the world? What about broadcasting? Narrowcasting?
In the Preface, the author tells a story about how a company ended up going bankrupt because of a lack of oversight. She observes that the C-suite and employees “both made choices to mask incompetence to keep an eroding status quo with no outside intervener lifting the curtain. Other choices were pushed off the table because of the press’s choice to remain ignorant” (Kitty, 2022, p. iv). If those who aim to be truthtellers miss the story, there are various negative social repercussions.
The Preface is written with a self-righteousness and triggering anger for when people fail. She admonishes journalists:
…there will always be consequences to the execution of our choices, and it is important to grasp the nuances of this reality. If you choose to deceive a source today, you will have to face exposure of your manipulations tomorrow. When you build trust, you build credibility and goodwill. (Kitty, 2022, p. x)
The honesty of a journalist does not conflate with being “soft, weak, or gullible by default. It is entirely possible to be cunning and trustworthy, but not if you are conniving. There are differences between the two concepts: being shrewd doesn’t mean you’re not honest. Being conniving necessarily means you see being dishonest and manipulative as being smart” (p. x). She suggests that a core idealism is “the secret ingredient to evolution, prosperity, innovation, invention, and success, and yet being idealistic doesn’t mean one foregoes realism. It is a delicate balance of understanding that an environment or situation can improve even if there are dangers and deceits contaminating the ecosystem in question. The trick is to keep open without gullibility” (p. x). She describes journalists “going up against professional manipulators and propagandists” (p. x). To avoid being “a useful idiot, pawn, proxy, Trojan Horse, pigeon, and dupe,” the journalist who can amplify stories have to get savvy (p. x). They have to be able to tease out hidden information “ethically, elegantly, and empirically” (p. x). Journalists have to occupy the professional and moral high ground.
Somewhere along the way, the author switches to the second-person point-of-view. She writes:
People lie and they bluff. They parse words, gossip, and hint without committing to hard data. People will appeal to authority or appease a mob. It is their right to do so, but as a journalist, your mandate is to find empirical information that is reliable, valid, and has utility. You will be exploited, manipulated, and gaslighted frequently. You will be threatened, insulted, dismissed, and demeaned. You will have to look inward to see if you are being rejected as part of a ruse to hide the true state of reality—or because you have caused harm to innocent people who have every right to see you as a toxic polluter of the information stream. In reality, there are no hard and fast rules.
All the same, if you do your job correctly—and there is no reason why you cannot—you will liberate many people from the pain others inflict upon them for exploitative purposes. You can expose charlatans, stand up to tyranny, and prove that there are multiple paths to new and innovative solutions; however, without humility, your work will be in vain. People aren’t stupid; they may keep quiet knowing you are trying to manipulate them, but sooner or later, their anger will target you in subtle and quiet ways. When you are honest with good intentions, you build trust, even with those whose ideology differs from your own. (Kitty, Preface, 2022, p. x)
She does admonish those who would use their journalistic skills to “meddle” in others’ lives and to tell others “what to think and what to do” in patronizing ways (p. xi) Journalists need to do their work effectively to “ensure a robust evolution of society” (p. xi), nothing less. She encourages journalists to devise new strategies and to revise old ones “as you chronicle this ever-spinning story machine and tumbler we call the world” (p. xi). Journalists are not just “players” in the world but “the stars…” and “supporting characters” and can make a difference (p. ix). Journalists do nothing less than put the world right, in an advocacy sense.
Girding for the Fight
Sometimes, having a chip on the shoulder and a sense of outrage may be a basis for civic action, including citizen journalism. In “Readying for Battle” (Ch. 1), Kitty lauds the work of amateur journalists over “legacy” ones, which may evoke something past its prime and something “OK boomer”-ish. She describes citizen journalism as a “true alternative model” to mainline journalism (p. 1). She writes:
With media outlets relying on canned sources, PR firms, and press releases from vested interests, many individuals began their own media outlets, from podcasts to newsletters. They did research, found primary sources, and began to interview those with different perspectives as their audience share increased, while traditional media could no longer compete, despite news reports claiming increased audiences, on the one hand, and then contradict themselves with lamentations of declining revenue and steep job cuts of those in the profession. (Kitty, “Readying for Battle,” 2022, p. 1)
Legacy journalism has not been about necessarily “wading into a battlefield of lies to see reality to liberate the truth” (Kitty, “Readying for Battle,” 2022, p. 1). By contrast, citizen journalists are depicted as reflecting “organic plurality,” which may enable more effective depictions of “the nature of reality” (p. 1). The first chapter lays out a worldview of a mainline press that is underfunded and beholden to institutional interests. There is a sense of disintegrating trust between the news consumer and formal news organizations. And then, how dare the mainstream critique podcasters?! (p. 2)
Figure 2. Citizen Journalism
The chapter goes on to advise citizen journalists (and perhaps online sleuths) against falling into partisanship even as they compete for attention in a competitive and fractured media space. She advises on how to listen for subtext in messaging. She describes how not to be distracted by “misdirection such as narrative, sophistry, and atmosphere” (Kitty, “Readying for Battle,” 2022, p. 3). She offers a list of narratively explained phenomena from denotation to connotation, soft vs. hard persuasion, psychological priming, prompting, and other phenomena that may inform the work of intercommunications. The list reads as idiosyncratic.
Having a defensive and angry or edgy posture to the world may also not be an optimal journalistic approach. The terms actually fit into an overall quadrant model with four elements: denotation/tell as “honesty,” denotation/sell as “advertising,” connotation/tell as “opinion,” and connotation/sell as “propaganda” (pp. 5-6). There is a value in seeing a world comprised of strategic and tactical communications. There are mixed forms, too, like “advertorials” (p. 8) and “infotainment” (p. 9). Journalists have to be able to differentiate the various underlying motivations and forms of intercommunications in a complex information environment. They benefit when they are skeptical about the intentions of public relations professionals (pp. 10 – 12).
It may be that Kitty is writing to both citizen journalists and nouveau journalists but uses legacy ones as foils against whom she writes.
Strategies and Tactics
In the next chapter, “Setting the Strategy” (Ch. 2), Kitty specifies that her focus is on “independent journalism,” which she describes as “a study of contradictions: planning in chaos must be flexible, innovative, and disciplined” (p. 17). She suggests that the need for well-funded newsrooms is erroneous and that “anyone can be a sophisticated broadcasting center with a smartphone” (p. 17). The public trust has diminished in formal newsrooms and news organizations as they have for Big Tech companies as well. Perhaps such changes are semi-permanent or wholly permanent. The “old guard” has failed to innovate and trusted too much in their conventional ways of thinking and doing, she suggests.
The researcher identifies “Assangian Miscalculations” in terms of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks platform that elicited sensitive data from leakers around the world. She writes (as to Assange and those who would emulate him): “While you will be exposing corruption and incompetence, you must come to understand that you will not always get applause. Do not let patriarchal narrative lull you into a false sense of a natural order where you will enlighten everyone who will thank you and then completely change their ways as the villains are punished and the heroes rewarded” (Kitty, “Setting the Strategy,” 2022, p. 20).
She identifies Stanley Milgram as another point of critique given his ethically-challenged research into human tendencies towards obedience. From him, she advises, “Your job as a journalist is threefold: not to stoop to obedience, not to manipulate people’s herding tendencies, and not to allow others to herd other human beings. Milgramming is used to harm, not help” (Kitty, “Setting the Strategy,” 2022, p. 21). Since the work of an independent journalist springs from the person, who that person is matters. To resist obedience tactics, she advises the following: “Focus on facts, not on the conduit” and “Remember that monolithic thinking is a sign of psychopathy and malignant narcissism” and “Remember that you do not have to defer or recognize authority” and others (p. 22). “Listen to your instinct before you make a decision,” she advises (p. 23) and notes that once actions are taken, they cannot be undone. She advises against “The Default Delusion” or going into contexts in unthinking ways. She warns against false dichotomies, labels, “hypothetical constructs, and sanctioned insanity” (p. 23). She warns against arbitrariness mistaken as ground truth, over-simplifications taken as complexity. She writes:
It is easy to fall for a fantastic narrative, and to disbelieve mundane and disjointed accounts, but as we must vet information, regardless of packaging, we must look for signs of manipulation and deception. Color, frills, and bombast will often be used to sell a story, but the reality of the situation is what is important to know. (Kitty, “Setting the Strategy,” 2022, p. 24)
Journalists need to think through assumptions. They need to read beyond apparent surface facts in order to see the world for what it is:
When we begin to remove untested truisms and learn to look for hard data and soft data points, we begin to fill in gaps and see reality. When we understand that our mandate is to empirically inform with ecological validity, we can begin to set our strategy as we know what we are looking for and what it is that are supposed to do. When both parts of this equation are defined, then we can begin to decide how we will get and disseminate facts to the public (p. 25)
She uses the idea of how to investigate complaints, with an understanding of subjectivities.
For instance, there will always be people who will complain: their grievances are not legitimate by default. There will be people who claim they are innocent when they are guilty; there will be abusers who claim to be abused; there will be grifters who lie to cover their scams. On the other hand, there will be people who blame victims and have been falsely accused of wrongdoing. There will be people who feel entitled to someone else’s riches, whether they have a legitimate claim to it or not, and those who will expect to achieve success without risk or effort, or without ever trying to forge a new path themselves. There is no rule of reality that dictates that every complaint requires a remedy. (Kitty, “Setting the Strategy,” 2022, pp. 26 - 27)
The dynamism of a chaotic world means that journalists have to be flexible in order to engage effectively. They have to decide which facts are salient and how to pursue them. Hypotheses have to be testable and falsifiable. She advises, “…do not use sophistry or narrative to explain away the evidence that disproves your hypothesis” (p. 31). Independent reporters need strangers from various sectors to provide information, and one way to achieve that is to have allies and advocates to support their credibility. This chapter covers ways to access information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), various databases, public relations entities, and others. She highlights the limits of human perception and human memory, perhaps suggesting mitigations and the making of contemporaneous notes (instead of relying on memory). She writes: “As a journalist, yours is not the realm of fantasy. It is the realm of reality. Deception and fabrication have no place in the journalism product as reports are meant to inform” (p. 41). Facts have to be acquired and checked. Kitty proposes counter-manipulative strategies: “your perceptions must be aligned with reality: emotional, primal, and analytical literacies need to see the organic plurality and randomness of life” (p. 49).
Heading into Controversies
“Going into the Heart of the Storm” (Ch. 3) opens with the assertion that independent journalists write from “the radical center” (as in “Your job is not to enable or reinforce, but to challenge from the radical center”) and the lens of “organic plurality” (p. 51). They do not accept others’ narratives per se but apply a critique to the information by engaging in actual journalism vs. pseudo-journalism. Their focus is to understand how people socially organize to positions of power and then exploit others.
Figure 3. Broadcasting
To understand “organic plurality,” it helps to understand her definition of “monomania” in the status quo. She writes:
Monomania is the drive to remove organic plurality to bring predictability and rigs which prevent organic evolutionary changes. It is put in place with static rules: however, this scheme hinges on every single individual to play along…Monomania is the attempt to hide a control group: if people can compare and contrast as they are shown an alternative is possible, they will leave the monolithic scaffolding as their filters see more of reality than they did before. (Kitty, “Going Into…” 2022, p. 53)
Organic plurality involves the ability to view an issue from multiple perspectives, to capture some of the world’s complexities. At its core, it is anti-fascist (p. 57) and enables the imagining of a world in social flux and with different possible idealized alternate futures. Citizen journalism is about exposing “arrogance” in leaders and to call out those in power, based on real-world examples. It is about seeing mass-scale manipulations of populations “to undermine perceptions of reality” (Kitty, “Going Into…” 2022, p. 92).
Avoiding Machiavellian Blandishments
The next chapter, “Indoctrination and Manipulation” (Ch. 4), reveals how the author sees journalism, as “applied psychology, and experimental psychology methods will help you conduct empirical experiments, understand human behavior, and recognize signs of propaganda and manipulation; however, it is not a way to control others into complying with your demands. Journalism isn’t a mechanism for social engineering: it is a method to inform the public about the state of reality” (p. 106). Then, what follows are various ways to avoid manipulations while conducting interviews, with ideas that sound like interrogations: Ask innocuous questions first to set a baseline for how that person responds for a baseline of honesty (against which to detect dishonesty). She writes: “When you have discovered deception or hidden connections, you will need to use sidewinder questions to chip away at the individual’s façade. Sidewinder questions are seemingly innocuous, but ask questions close to, but not directly, to what a person is trying to hide from you” (p. 110). Corporate entities are portrayed as untrustworthy organizations. Journalists should not be bigots, misogynists, classists, ageists, ableists, or else they are merely continuing indoctrination through their work. Journalists, Kitty writes, should not be predatory. (The author is equal opportunity in her cynical view of people.)
Wrangling Excess Data and Exploring Conspiracies
“Conspiracy Panic and Paranoia” (Ch. 5) argues against “the outright maligning of those labeled ‘conspiracy theorists’ who are made to seem stupid and insane” (p. 152). How individuals view conspiracies reflects on what sort of thinker they are, whether emotional or primal or harmonized or rote binary, among others, according to Kitty. What follows are ideas for how to study conspiracies without responding with panic or outright disavowal. Rather, it is better to form a strategy to explore and proceed. This work leaves a sense that the zeitgeist of the age is information overload perhaps to the point of toxicity.
“Rote Collusion and Hamster Wheels” (Ch. 6) warns against following “the rotes or rituals” of larger society’s dictates on perceptions, intercommunications, and social hierarchies. Much of this work is about training how to be an outsider looking into a society, especially if the society is one from which the citizen journalist has emerged. Extant power structures are not to be protected in “Threats and Pecking Orders” (Ch. 7). Rather, incompetence and corruption are to be revealed, in order to challenge those structures.
When a citizen journalist identifies “abusive or incompetent actors,” their work may be sufficient to threaten the societal infrastructure supporting that incompetence in “Gaslighting and Nudging” (Ch. 8) (p. 225). A person whose position of power is under threat may lash out in risky ways, which should be anticipated and defended against. There may be attempts at minimizing or deceptive gaslighting. To counter reality distortions, there are ways to use interviews and other methods to try to get closer to actual reality. There are tips for how to deal with patronizing sources (stay calm and don’t be manipulated) and secretive ones and abusive ones, and so on.
Figure 4. Faded Abstraction
Journalists may suffer both short-term and long-term effects of stresses in “Emotional Bombing and Sensory Overload” (Ch. 9). This work opens with the following observations:
Atmosphere is meant to disorient and unbalance many people at once to maintain control of their thoughts, but when it is paired with emotional overload, the effects can freeze people in place. Stress doesn’t merely vanish after a real or perceived crisis has been resolved: neurobiological residue builds up over time. When people are on edge, the slightest push or provocation can have serious impediments to their abilities to think rationally. Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder alter perceptions of reality, but any sort of cascading catastrophe can leave permanent uncertainty and scars on people. (p. 241)
Stressful work can be a heavy lift for many. Reporters often have to deal with hostile individuals, who may become abusive, including “bullying, rank-pulling, name-calling, and even shouting and temper tantrums, and tears” (p. 246).
Political campaigns may offer their own sorts of challenges, with propaganda, bigotry, and dysfunctionality, among others. This work summarizes some of the earlier suggested approaches and contributes additional ones.
Staying Healthily Engaged
“Burnout and Crashes” (Ch. 10) warns against overwork and high reactance to the various injustices that may be par for the course. She suggests harnessing the challenges in a way that leaves the journalist anti-fragile:
Part of the cognitive fatigue will come as your primal literacy is aware of this stalking, but as your other core literacies are tasked and taxed with other responsibilities, burnout and crashing are inevitable unless you prepare your strategies carefully, but how to recover from covering high stakes stories requires harmonization of your literacies as well as flexible and organic scaffoldings which take such games into equations—but in such a way that it is beneficial to your mandate and helps you gain energy, not drain it” (p. 252).
The burden may be heavier when going with “raw primary data” instead of pre-packaged press releases (p. 253). Independent journalists have to be aware of their own limits and engage in self-care and stress relief, both pre- and post-crashes. This chapter includes ideas for physical exercise, artistic and musical activities, and other ways to relieve stress.
The next chapter warns against ruses and grifts. “False Rushes and Squeezes” (Ch. 11) suggests that those who are naïve or gullible may be misled and act on false information and reap the consequences. A self-evaluation may help a citizen journalist identify their strengths and weaknesses, so as to “improve your critical skepticism” (p. 265). It helps to study known deceptions and tricks so as not to fall victim. It helps to work with allies and advocates for support. Be careful about others trading information but also collecting information against the journalist. There are ways to “buy time” to pursue a news story.
Strategies for Countering Manipulations
“The 36 Counter-Strategies of Manipulations” (Ch. 12) captures the main ideas for how to engage as a citizen journalist based on a warring mentality. She advocates reading texts for war and Machiavellian manipulation (listed as The Art of War, The Prince, Clausewitz on War, the Secret Six Teachings, Rules for Radicals, and The 36 Stratagems of War” (p. 275) in order to gird for the work in extremis. Understanding the premise of this book and some of the sources of information help explain the work’s tone and advice.
“Emotional Wellness” (Ch. 13) is another factor that independent journalists need to maintain. Journalists need to be self-aware about their emotional reactions to the stories that they are covering. Further, their journalistic work needs to be conveyed with emotional literacy. She writes:
When your emotional core is literate and functioning, you will be able to see solutions, even in the chaos. By looking after your emotional well-being, you will feel when an environment is dangerous or abusive. By socializing and nurturing your emotional core, you will be able to put events and environments in perspective to give a textured picture of reality. When we become overwhelmed by conflicting emotions, we may begin to shut down and misinform a public who needs the facts to turn a bad situation around. (p. 286)
There is more than the emotional dimension. This book also addresses analytical wellness. If journalistic work involves constant pressures and manipulations by human sources, reporters need to maintain their sense of analytical literacy and analytical objectivity, in “Analytical Wellness” (Ch. 14). She writes, “Your analytical core should be looking for facts and separating them from wishful thinking, sophistry, narrative, and atmosphere. Facts can be measured, weighed, vetted, and verified through independent means, not cognitively outsourced to a labeled entity that is heavy on authoritative-sounding titles but has no transparent empirical standards” (Kitty, “Analytical Wellness,” 2022, p. 290). She advises constant learning to stay analytically fit.
There is also “Primal Wellness” (Ch. 15), which is defined as the parts of a person that lets them know when they are under external threat or are in internal “distress” (p. 295). She writes: “Independent and citizen journalism requires primal competency to function properly” (p. 295). People know how to adapt to survive, such as spending less financially when times are lean. There are practical skills that may be learned to enhance survival.
There are different aspects to survival: physical and health, social, technological, financial, and others. “You should be able to deal with various elements, such as build a fire, create potable water, and build a shelter to protect yourself as well as know how to tie and use knots and forage for food. Any skill which can give you currency in times of chaos,” she writes, tapping into some of the survivalist tropes of the age. She adds, “You should know how to construct and use simple machines: lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw to understand how basic mechanisms operate” (p. 297).
Those points are not further elaborated on. The ideas seem to be a hodge-podge even as a concern for the journalistic person is commendable.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Book
This work would be stronger if it was clear what professional fields citizen journalists come from, what content they contribute, and how long they tend to stay in the field. Do they see the work as a calling or a hobby or something else altogether? What actual supports do they have to do the work if they receive either no funds or only online micropayments for driving attention? It would be good to know what knowledge, skills, and abilities / attitudes (KSAs) they would most benefit from learning. Also, a clearer sense of the legal liabilities that such journalists work under would be informative.
It would help to know who consumes their contents and for what reasons. A core assumption seems to be that once people are notified about wrongdoing, they will experience outrage and make change. A more likely response is apathy unless people see an issue as directly impacting their lives. News cycles are fast and short, and people do often engage in mass forgetting. A splash of attention is one thing, but actual change is hard. Institutional change is difficult to achieve, even in the most optimized circumstances. Various forms of governance--from local to national--have important contributions to make and are not necessarily adversaries or opponents to common folk.
This book shows a dearth of trust of humanity. This mistrust extends to all people in this nonfiction work (including the independent reporters to which the work is written). This reads as both an ideological radical social-changing framework as well as an advisory work for how people may engage the complex and hostile world and report on it. The costs of constant vigilance seem burdensome. The expected skillset may take many years or even a lifetime to fully acquire.
A truism: For all the focus on methods, the work of journalism and all other fields do rely on human subjectivities. The book itself offers a range of cherry-picked news examples, often focused on strife between the mainline press and the alternate one.
Alexandra Kitty’s authored text, Psychological Strategies for Journalists (2022), lets independent journalists know that there are professional standards that they need to adhere to, perhaps in lieu of a guiding professional organization’s standards. The positionality of such journalists as working against the existing status quo and power structures—based on radical critique perspectives—is an assumed professional-ethical stance.
Depending on the positionality of readers, the work (not unsophisticated) may read as excessively sharp or cynical. The hardball environment may be unfamiliar to most. The world can be a highly brutal place. Those who want to take the battle to extant power structures will not achieve goals based on light psyops and their blog posts and pod casts. The impression of a few hyper-popular social media influencers may give the sense of some power (based on "survival bias"), but most independent journalistic works fall into a long tail of niche interests, perhaps the likes and views of a few. Political correctness is its own sort of virtue, but that is insufficient to achieve journalistic excellence alone.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer / researcher at Kansas State University. Her email is email@example.com.