I began 2021 by writing that “we’re going to need a bigger homepage.” And I’m finishing the year feeling the same way. The sheer amount of news and the absolute inundation of information means we are all overwhelmed by choice. We have to choose carefully, but that means very different things to different people.
Chartbeat’s list of the year’s “most engaging stories” is a window into what we chose in 2021. More than 30 of the 110 headlines are about Donald Trump or members of his family. Only 8 of the headlines are about President Biden, and most of those also involve Trump.
The No. 1 story was Amy Gardner’s January 3 scoop for the Washington Post with the audio of Trump’s hour-long call with Brad Raffensperger. The call was a key part of Trump’s coup attempt.
“Four more of the top 10 were related to the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Poynter’s Rick Edmonds pointed out. “The highest-ranking story about President Biden and his return-to-normalcy administration ranked 52nd.”
“Covid-19 did not match the level of interest Trump generated but was represented” on the list, Edmonds added. “Second on Chartbeat’s list was a story, revised through the year by Stat infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell, comparing the three main vaccines.” Stories about Gabby Petito, the “Rust” shooting, and several killing sprees also ranked highly. But if I had to isolate one theme, it’s that the aftermath of the Trump presidency dominated during Biden’s first year.
Axios analyzed the year a different way, using data from Google Trends. “Overall,” Stef W. Kight found, “most major events or issues this year only managed to keep America’s attention for one or two weeks.”
Top ten media stories of 2021
Since it’s year-in-review time, what were the top 10 media stories of 2021? What qualifies as a media story, exactly? Here’s my imperfect shot at a list:
– Daring reporting from Afghanistan: As the Taliban encroached on Kabul and the US withdrawal turned chaotic, reporters became the eyes and ears of the world. Western news outlets also became de facto rescuers for hundreds of Afghan residents who aided their news operations for decades. I interviewed one of them, Mohammad, on last Sunday’s “Reliable Sources;” he now lives in Atlanta and works as a researcher for CNN’s international desk. For his family’s safety, we did not share his last name. Mohammad expressed thanks for his “second life” and pointed out that the suffering in Afghanistan is profound.
– Setbacks for press freedom: Outgoing Committee to Protect Journalists chief Joel Simon told me that some media workers are still trying to exit Afghanistan, “but the situation on the ground is bleak and there are very few prospects for the journalists who have been left behind.” More broadly, the report card for global press freedom is “grim,” Simon said, with setbacks from Hong Kong to Belarus. Governments are waging battles “over who controls information,” he said.
– De-platforming Donald Trump: Twitter permanently banned the president just two days after the Capitol insurrection. While Trump cried censorship, social media CEOs struggled to figure out where to draw the line.
– GOP media’s 1/6 denialism: It started on the very night of the riot. The Big Lie led to the big denial – desperate attempts to erase the violent reality of the attempted coup. Pro-Trump outlets sowed conspiracy theories and barely covered the real news about the insurrection’s aftermath or the new efforts to subvert democracy at the state level. Voting tech companies filed lawsuits and tried to hold liars accountable.
– The vaccine disinformation divide: Reliable information about Covid-19 vaccines helped people get vaccinated and protected, but anti-vaccine lies went viral and distorted the public discourse. Right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson, who cemented his No. 1 status at Fox, took conspiracy theories from the fringes and moved them to the mainstream. Media personalities who claimed to respect their audience actually put them at undue risk.
– Streaming strategies: Hollywood giants invested more and more on streaming content in an epic race to catch up to Netflix. Streaming was the focus of AT&T’s deal to spin off WarnerMedia, including CNN, and combine it with Discovery. It was also the focus of Amazon’s deal for MGM.
Also included on the top 10 list for this CNN video: “Woke wars,” Substack’s growth, Oprah’s bombshell interview with Prince Harry and Megan Markle, TV news turnover, and the Facebook Files. If I could add one more, it would be about TikTok’s extraordinary growth and the great reporting about the app’s rabbit holes.
More snapshots of media in 2021
President Biden restored daily press briefings and other norms, though he was far less accessible than many reporters wanted. His first year in office was misshaped and reshaped by Covid-19. Outside the United States, his administration pledged support for pro-democracy media.
Trump was out of office but not out of sight. He, his family members and allies dominated right-wing media. Lara Trump and Kayleigh McEnany joined Fox. Other boosters competed for time on Newsmax and OAN. Fox remained the beating heart of GOP media, with Newsmax far behind in the TV ratings. The death of Rush Limbaugh prompted a conservative media radio war. Tech startups sought to harness far-right energy but with limited success. Trump said he would launch a massive media platform, and time will tell if he ever does.
All of the cable news channels made post-election schedule changes. Brianna Keilar moved to CNN’s morning show. Greg Gutfeld gained a late-night hour on Fox. Lou Dobbs was ousted at Fox Business. Juan Williams left “The Five.” Chris Cuomo was fired by CNN. Brian Williams left MSNBC. Rachel Maddow renewed with NBC, but will leave her daily show in early 2022. Chris Wallace leaped from Fox to CNN+, which will launch in early 2022.
The Washington Post hired Sally Buzbee to succeed Marty Baron. Then Julie Pace replaced Buzbee as the top editor of The AP. Kim Godwin succeeded James Goldston at ABC News. Neeraj Khemlani and Wendy McMahon were named the co-heads of CBS News and Stations. Many of the appointments were “firsts,” signaling newfound diversity in major newsrooms.
In the entertainment realm, every major media company invested in a streaming arsenal. Discovery launched Discovery+. ViacomCBS launched Paramount+. Netflix kept dominating. David Zaslav, dubbed “Hollywood’s hottest power player,” touted his vision for Warner Bros. Discovery. Bob Iger made his exit.
“Jeopardy!” screwed up succession planning. The Justice Department stepped in to block Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster. Alden Global Capital bought Tribune’s newspapers, then made a move for Lee. BuzzFeed went public. Vox Media and Group Nine sought scale. Ozy Media became a punchline. Facebook became Meta. Jack Dorsey handed Twitter to Parag Agrawal. TikTok boomed. Clubhouse faded. And there was so much more.
– ABC’s “World News Tonight with David Muir” was the most-watched daily newscast in the US, with an average of 8.2 million viewers season to date.
– Fox’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was the biggest show on cable news, with an average of 3.2 million viewers.
– According to Amazon, the year’s best-selling new book was “American Marxism” by Mark Levin.
– CNN ranked as the #1 digital news destination, according to ComScore.
– Puerto Rican Reggaeton star Bad Bunny was the most-streamed artist in the world on Spotify.
– The best-grossing movie domestically was “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
Disinfo in 2021: Overlapping disbelief
“Last December” the first Covid vaccine was authorized. “Less than a month later,” the Capitol was ransacked. “In 2021, those two events became the basis for a torrent of misinformation in Americans’ social media feeds,” Daniel Funke wrote for USA Today.
Funke rounded up some of the most notable fact-checks of the year. It is striking to reflect on just how closely disbelief in election results and distrust of the vaccines are connected, and then reflect on why.
Further reading and viewing
– I bet you’ve forgotten some of what happened in the past 12 months. I know I have! Here is CNN’s chronological list of major events.
– For this year-ender episode of the “Reliable Sources” podcast, Oliver Darcy discussed 2021’s biggest stories at the intersection of media, politics, business, and culture, from the Facebook Papers to Fox’s “conspiracy land,” from “Jeopardy!” to job changes.
– Julie Pace of The AP and Alessandra Galloni of Reuters, both of whom were appointed to the top jobs in 2021, talked with me about the top stories of the year, the pandemic’s impact on news, threats to democracy and more. Watch part one and part two.
– Here’s a different way to assess engagement: Pocket shared a list of the most-saved stories by its users in 2021. “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” by Adam Grant, was #1.
– “The presidential election, pandemic and racial reckoning were stories that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020. To a large degree, 2021 represented the inevitable hangover,” The AP’s David Bauder wrote.
– Tom Jones looked back at “the best and worst of news media in 2021” for Poynter.
– Longform’s best-of-the-year list is an outstanding collection of in-depth journalism.
– NBC’s clever quiz: Did these news events happen in 2020 or 2021?
A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.