The 'Narrowing Nexus' Between Think Tanks and Journalists

Brian Finlay, Cameron Munter, Aaron Shull, and Kevin Rudd discuss the challenges think tanks are facing in staying relevant and credible amid shifting dynamics in politics, media, and philanthropy. Alessandra Stanley moderates the discussion. (1 hr., 12 min.)

Cable television, the internet, and social media have allowed for the greater dissemination of knowledge, but they’ve also yielded a rise in partisan media and fake news that allow consumers to cocoon themselves with information that conforms with their existing views. The result is an increasingly polarized political landscape and traditional media that's struggling to remain credible, relevant, and profitable. What’s less recognized is that think tanks are facing a similar dilemma.

“We see a narrowing of the nexus between the work that think tanks do and the work that journalists do,” said Aaron Shull, chief operating officer of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Shull was speaking at Asia Society in New York on a panel about how international affairs think tanks are adapting to major shifts in the global political and media landscapes. “The technology has fundamentally changed the way that people consume information and the way that think tanks need to engage with their audience,” he said. “If you just treat [social media] like a billboard or just fire out PDFs, you're dead in the water.”

He noted that many think tanks are now doing more extensive outreach through social media and creating more compelling video and infographic content that appeals to general audiences. This is at the same time some media outlets — like New York Times’ Upshot, FiveThirtyEight, and Vox — are taking a more wonkish approach in their investigations and reporting.

“I've had conversations with journalists that say, ‘You think tank guys are irrelevant now, we can do that. We're our own think tank in journalism,’” said Brian Finlay, president and CEO of the Stimson Center. “But at the same time, when they’re overwhelmed with fake news and trying to parse the facts, they need trusted sources to go to. … We're frenemies — in some ways we compete with one another, but we also have a symbiotic relationship and rely on one another.”

Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said though that much of the work think tanks do often needs to stay behind closed doors; for example, when they facilitate backchanneling between governments on sensitive issues. “We'd never tell the media that, it just blows the whole show out of the water,” he said. “However, if our public policy position is on a particular matter, like thinking free trade is good for the world and America, then we are in evangelization mode. We see the media as our natural partner.”

Finlay said that amid shifting dynamics, some think tanks are straying too far from their basic values and undermining their one key attribute: credibility. They do this by becoming too politicized, aligning with specific political parties, or accepting funding from dubious sources. “As we reflect on how we remain relevant, I think we also have to think about how we undertake our research, fund our research, and adapt to changing models of philanthropy,” he said. “But also carefully calibrate and not overreact to what seems like a remarkably different environment that may not actually be quite as different as we assume.”

“At the end of the day, we're public servants,” he added. “We benefit from a privileged tax status and work for the public good, so I think remaining true to that and remaining transparent in who funds us is absolutely essential.”

Watch the full program in the above video.

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.