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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Weekly press must help extricate readers from ‘silos of ideology’

This column appeared April newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

If you haven’t read Melissa Hale-Spencer’s article in the spring issue of Grassroots Editor, take a look at it, especially the last two complete paragraphs in the first column. In those two paragraphs, Melissa prevented my usual rant when only the first part of Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote about newspapers and government is mentioned. She also raised two extremely significant issues when she quoted the often-ignored final sentence of Jefferson’s 1787 comment: “But I should mean that every man should receive these papers and be capable of reading them.”

 

Hale-Spencer then added her 2017 comment that, 230 years later, “we still need a literate public that reads many and competing news sources. It’s hard work but that’s how the truth comes out.”

 

I’ll suggest that we need a public that’s more than just “literate” in the literal sense. It also needs to be media literate to the point where it understands how news stories are put together and why journalists make certain choices about what to include and exclude, and how to display a story. It needs to know what to expect from the news media, and what not to expect.

 

Jefferson’s second point, about the need to read competing news sources, is equally important. Hale-Spencer is right on target when she notes both the difficulty and the need for this. It is, indeed, “how the truth comes out” when people are enticed from the “news silos” in which they’ve taken refuge and encounter new perspectives about their world.

 

Both media literacy and the problems posed by “silos” and “echo chambers” came up at a March 31 conference on “Truth, Trust & the Future of Journalism” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one had suggestions for how larger media outlets might deal with either issue, and only a few people seemed receptive when I mentioned during the course of the day that community weeklies were in an entirely different position and might be able to act effectively.

 

For example: Several speakers said that media literacy is especially needed now because of the current contentious relationship between the press and the president. There were suggestions that media literacy education should start in middle schools or even earlier…something that community weekly editors could certainly champion with their local school boards, not to mention offering themselves or staff members as classroom resources.

 

No one had an answer to the question of how to connect with “moderate” Trump supporters who get their national news only from outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, which echo what they already believe. But none of the panelists mentioned the role that community weeklies might play in getting people out of those “echo chambers” by providing more coverage of how national news developments impact those local readers – thereby offering a perspective that differs from the “echo chambers.”

 

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and formerly the public editor of The New York Times, noted that the level of trust in the media is greater for the outlets that people use than it is for “the media” in general. Others noted that with trust comes credibility, which puts community newspapers in position to offer material that just might make people think about ideas they haven’t considered previously.

 

Marty Kaiser, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editor from 1997 to 2015 and now a senior fellow for the Democracy Fund, said he was most scared in the current climate by people who fail to understand why stories – and ideas – they disagree with are even in the paper. That brings me back to news media transparency and efforts to educate the audience and, in that process, help people think about new ideas.

 

The New York Times’ occasional series entitled “Why’d You Do That,” in which the paper’s public editor asks staffers to explain a significant newsroom project or development, is one possible approach. So is a regular “Letter from the Editor” and any number of other ways of telling your readers what you’re doing and why. Or even one rather wild suggestion that reporters might annotate their stories online as they’re working on them and, in essence, try to open-source them. Inevitably, the discussion raised questions about coverage of President Trump and what (not whether) new approaches to presidential coverage are needed. These were among the responses:

  • Ken Vogel, chief investigative reporter for POLITICO: the news media have to cover what the president says, but shouldn’t call any of it “a lie”– rather, their reports need to show the audience why it’s a lie.
  • Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT: fact-checking is crucial, a point that was underscored by the presence on a later panel of Michelle Lee, one of two Washington Post reporters who write “The Fact Checker” weekly column.
  • Lucas Graves, an assistant professor in UW-Madison’s J-School and author of a 2016 book, Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism: reality and accuracy don’t always lend themselves to “balanced” reporting but, while there’s no easy way to deal with this, journalists have to find a way to be fair.
  • Stephen Ward, a distinguished lecturer in ethics at the University of British Columbia and a media ethicist and author with an international reputation: reporters’ attitudes and impressions – and, perhaps, biases – are a greater concern than factual errors.
  • Joanne Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota: reporters need to avoid reporting their preconceived notions that “fit the narrative.”
  • Charles Sykes, who stepped down last December after 23 years as one of Wisconsin’s top-rated and influential conservative talk show hosts (and an outspoken critic of the Trump Administration): President Trump’s strategy is not just to get people to believe in him but, rather, to “annihilate the capacity to reason,” and it’s the political/ ideological Right that will have to take the lead in opposing this.
  • Ward, again: there is a need to develop norms that can be applied to analytical pieces, and a need to teach more about how to do good ones.

And, finally, two comments on what’s necessary regardless of the obstacles erected by the Trump Administration: journalists must “speak Truth to Power” from both sides of the political spectrum (Sykes); and, journalism’s purpose must remain to hold powerful people and powerful institutions accountable (Kaiser).

 

Amen to all of that (well, maybe not to the online annotation of stories as they’re being written)…with the hope that ISWNE members in particular, and the weekly press in general, will somehow find the time, the space and the will to assume a leadership role that desperately needs to be filled in regard both to media literacy and efforts to extricate people from their “silos of ideology.”

 

This column was reprinted with permission of Dave Gordon,  2016-17 president of ISWNE (SJMC Class of 1972, Ph.D. ). Information about the organization is available at www.iswne.org, where the spring issue of Grassroots Editor is also posted.