Who, what, when, where, why, oh, why…
The press has been hurt by months of verbal attacks during the presidential campaign and years of criticism from talk radio and cable TV—plus industry cutbacks and competition from social media, where anyone can post anything, regardless of its veracity. So will its function as government watchdog dwindle to the role of lapdog? Will journalists’ persistent growling go unheeded? Or will reporters offer less whining and more barking? As Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in November: “Holding the most powerful to account is what we are supposed to do. If we do not do that, then what exactly is the purpose of journalism?”
Such questions pertain as much to Washington, Illinois, as Washington, DC. The biggest news stories are about money and power—subjects people appreciate when they’re about local issues but increasingly doubt or reject as unfair if national topics. “It has done reporters no good to think of themselves as part of the ‘Establishment,’ or a megaphone for conventional wisdom,” comments Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review. “We need to embrace, even relish, our legacy as malcontents and troublemakers—people who are willing to say the thing that makes everyone else uncomfortable.”
A Silver Lining?
Discomfort was reciprocal during the long presidential campaign, as reporters were bullied and sequestered, and that trend could continue. But Peggy Boyer Long, who edited Illinois Issues magazine for 13 years, sees a silver lining in such treatment. “If [reporters] aren’t kept busy covering the latest press release or news conference… I believe they’ll find plenty of other rocks to kick over. I’m looking for… business reporters and court reporters to step up. This could turn out to be the golden age of watchdog journalism.”
However, besides belligerent officials, the press must also justify itself to the general population. Gallup polls in September 2016 found just 32 percent of Americans trust the mass media, comparable to a 2009 Pew Research finding that just 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight. The consequences seem dire if citizens are misinformed or uninformed.
Indeed, it’s unclear whether the country is truly divided or merely misled. “A significant minority of our fellow citizens are now absolutely sure of things that are simply not so,” says Kentucky State University professor Danny Duncan Collum, such as: “Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Climate change is a hoax. [President Obama] is a Muslim. Illegal immigrants commit more than their share of crimes, etc.”
According to a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 90 percent of Trump supporters said it’s possible that Hillary Clinton knew the Benghazi attacks on U.S. personnel were going to happen yet did nothing about it, while 86 percent of Clinton supporters said Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns indicated close financial ties to Russia. Both assertions are unproven. And it’s not just current events. One in four Americans believe the sun revolves around the Earth (National Science Foundation, 2014); 48 percent of Americans don’t think the Civil War was about slavery (Pew Research Center, 2011); and 55 percent of Americans mistakenly believe the Founders established the country as a Christian nation (First Amendment Center, 2007).
The Changing Audience
Sometimes readers have difficulty distinguishing between news reporting and opinion writing—and even phony articles masquerading as news stories. This can anger or deceive the public, and some media have dropped commentaries and endorsements, while others have stepped up partisanship by means of “entertainment” segments on news channels. As to fake “news” online, it’s difficult to monitor without censorship. (As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote, “Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.”) And audiences may be more susceptible because readers, listeners and viewers are different, having changed faster than real newsrooms that publish facts.
“Audiences have definitely changed, even since 2008 when I left TV news,” explains Amy Paul, a news anchor at WMBD-TV for more than 10 years. Radio news in particular has suffered, she says, with more listeners tuned in to satellite radio and fewer local voices on local stations. “As a journalist, I don’t understand how they could not want to hear local news alerts,” she continues. “Most people have smartphones that alert them to news right away; they don’t have to wait to get home to find out more. We can all jump on our phones and Google the story. I don’t think the younger generations have the attention span. I think more incorrect news is broadcast over the Internet due to the competition to be first, not correct.”
Boyer Long has a mixed reaction to this trend. “On my darker days, I believe the craving for entertainment and distraction is already too deeply embedded in our culture,” she declares. “We may have become a nation that doesn’t want to think more deeply than 140 characters. On my optimistic days, I believe this could be corrected [with] high school media literacy courses to develop future citizens’ critical-thinking skills.”
Some media critics blast false equivalency: the practice of trying to appear neutral by covering a misdeed by one person and suggesting her or his opponent is also lousy, or “balancing” a scientific conclusion with an opposing opinion with no basis in fact. Boyer Long thinks the complaint is valid. “Too many journalists have always believed there are only two sides, and that they’ll be checking off that box simply by getting an example or grabbing a quote from the ‘other’ side,” she explains. “We have to do better than that. Life is more complex. We may need a new journalistic paradigm.”
What Can Citizens Do?
Americans who no longer pay for good journalism helped create a divisive situation where we all need to better inform ourselves, suggests author Asha Dornfest, who offers some words of advice:
- Pay for quality journalism. “We all know that newspapers and editorial staffs have been gutted by the Internet and our insatiable thirst for free news. Guess what? Paying for news—investing in quality journalism and a free and open press—is what allows us to maintain our democracy.”
- Stop getting your news from Facebook. “Facebook is many things, but it’s not a news source.”
- Subscribe to your local newspaper. “I don’t care how crappy your local paper is. Don’t blame hard-working journalists for the fact that their newspapers’ business models have crumbled.”
- Subscribe to a national newspaper. “Be skeptical (don’t take everything at face value), but be informed. Democracy works better when we can at least agree on the facts.”
- Read at least one news source that doesn’t reflect your political view. “We must start listening to diverse points of view.”
- Read one news source devoted to international news. “Understand the privilege of democracy—and what it means to live without one.”
- Learn to identify fake news. “Think of a peer-reviewed, double-blind scientific study vs. ‘research’ funded by a corporation. Which would you trust? Do your homework.”
Paul, now Director of Strategic Communications at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, sees self-discipline as necessary for journalists. “Journalism classes stressed we needed to be ‘unbiased’,” she says. “That is certainly not the case anymore. We all know FOX is conservative/Republican, MSNBC Democrat, etc. You would love to say ‘what an idiot’ after many stories we aired, but we were only to be the messengers.”
Nonstop condemnation by cable TV hosts, talk radio and politicians has fomented this distrust. For example, FOX News analyst Ralph Peters suggested in 2013: “The neo-pagans who dominate the media serve as lackeys at the terrorists’ bloody altar. Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media.”
Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes wrote in August that the news media has been criticized by the right wing for years, making the job of dispensing facts more difficult, which he regrets. “Rather than simply attacking the instances of bias, we have succeeded in de-legitimizing the media altogether,” Sykes said. “Unfortunately, this means that there are few, if any, trusted referees at a moment when we most need independent, credible arbiters of truth.”
An Existential Crisis
Journalism’s structure itself may be problematic. “The watchdog role of journalism is in jeopardy, especially among mainstream media,” says Paul Gullifor, chair of Bradley University’s Department of Communication. “When journalism empires went public and had to answer to investors, everything changed. Investors are not journalists—they are business people interested in profit. There are some very good journalists in mainstream media, but they often find themselves frustrated in trying to do good, investigative stories in the face of such pressure to do stories that capture attention as a first priority, with informing the audience as secondary.
“Even the head of CBS [Les Moonves] said that while Trump may not be good for politics, he’s good for CBS—a statement that should make everyone cringe,” he adds. “I would say the opposite. I don’t know that many people understand the other function of the press: as a watchdog and critical part of our checks and balances essential to a healthy democracy. I suspect most folks see the press as willing to do anything for ratings and clicks.”
Local government and politics are less toxic than national issues, yet coverage is increasingly thin due to news media’s falling revenues and resulting layoffs. Compared to a few years ago, there’s less attention to the most basic levels of government: village boards, school boards, townships and the like. People get upset about Springfield and Washington, but few realize how little is known about the public bodies that provide community safety, local roads and education for their kids. And apart from national disagreements, most communities large and small work together on schools, water, etc. But how they do their work and what they prioritize beforehand is key—whether a public works project or property assessment.
Local reporting means reading documents, attending meetings and reporting on actions by officials and concerns by residents. (Full disclosure: I contribute to The Weekly Post, sent to 9,000 households in Peoria, Fulton and Knox counties, covering local government often ignored by other news media.) “Local journalists have to find experts in the area to help break down what is happening nationally and how it affects us in central Illinois,” Paul adds.
Local government can be a thankless job, and most officials are honest public servants, but as Jackson Herald editor Mike Buffington notes, “Good, smart people who mean well can make dumb public policy decisions—decisions they’d never make in their own lives or businesses. It’s easy to embrace bad policy when you’re spending other people’s money. [Also,] all governments—from the smallest town to Washington—want to spin their message through the media. Nobody in government likes to be questioned or second-guessed. Yet that’s exactly what newspapers are supposed to do. We don’t take government at face value.”
Again, most controversial coverage is about money and power (compared to reporting on weather, traffic or sports; audiences don’t hear about temperatures, traffic snarls or baseball scores and cry, “BS!” or “bias!”). And democracy needs the true press to follow the money and give citizens the facts to deal with power. CNN and ABC news anchor Christiane Amanpour told a group of journalists in November, “We face an existential crisis—a threat to the very relevance and usefulness of our profession. [It’s time to] recommit to robust, fact-based reporting, without fear or without favor. Don’t stand for being labeled or called ‘lying,’ or ‘crooked,’ or ‘failing’.”
So… will people ignore the watchdog’s warnings? Or will what could be “man’s best friend” (or democracy’s) be leashed—or even euthanized? iBi
Bill Knight is a former environmental reporter, critic and assistant editor at the Peoria Journal Star, writes a syndicated column, and freelances for newspapers and radio. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University for 21 years.