The Journalism We Need

Yesterday”s post was about the conundrum posed by social media sites. But social media isn’t journalism–and even when it focuses on news items, it is no substitute for journalism.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press for obvious reasons. When citizens are uninformed about their government, they are unable to ensure that it is acting appropriately, meeting its responsibilities. They are unable to cast informed votes.

The Internet and social media have dramatically changed the way in which citizens get their information, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the avalanche of news, spin, propaganda and conspiracy theories that populate today’s media. The ability to “choose one’s news”—to indulge our very human confirmation bias—has had an enormous (and I would argue negative) effect upon American governance.

An article from Resilience–an aggregator website–is instructive.The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of the “journalism of verification.”

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important than presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information  compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. The result is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

The problem is most acute at the local level.

What we lose when we lose newspapers that practiced the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government. Civic engagement and especially local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out. Studies of cities that have lost their newspapers confirm that the loss is followed by diminished civic and political activity. It also leads to higher costs of borrowing, because those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

Emerging data shows that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing have significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races, as well as lower voter turnout. Newspaper closures have been linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go.

When I taught my class in Media and Public Affairs five or six years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?” Those lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.

19 thoughts on “The Journalism We Need

  1. An informative article in the new SPLC magazine “The Year In Hate and Extremism 2020”, titled “Flyering Remains a Recruitment Tool for Hate Groups”. Flyering, hanging banners and bumper stickers are being used primarily by White Nationalist groups for recruitment, publicity and intimidation. The number of flyerings on college campus dropped between 2019 and 2020 but are still being used. Is flyering a form of social media and who edits these postings and recruitments? Journalists on the Southern Poverty Law Center staff continues to be the primary “watchdog” on the many forms of “spreading the word” but is limited in its scope of readers.

    Another article in the same SPLC magazine, “How an Encrypted Messaging Platform is Changing Extremist Movements” refers to “Telegram, a messaging app, is a haven for neo-Nazis, white nationalists and antigovernment extremists locked out of traditional social media sites, as Hatewatch first reported in mid-2019.” We watched their success on January 6th as members attacked our Capitol Building to stop the Electoral College vote count as insurrectionists chanted “Hang Mike Pence” and “Where is Nancy Pelosi”.

    Can “The Journalism We Need” legally address these forms of “social media” not in printed news form or on public Internet where they are sorely needed to warn the public? The criminal element always finds a way to circumvent the law as Trump proved with his Presidential Executive Orders ignoring democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution. Democracy truly does “lie in darkness” these days.

  2. I remember when the Indianapolis Star was bought by Gannett. The size of the staff was reduced, and the amount of advertising was increased. In addition, the paper carried a number of articles from USA Today (a Gannett publication), which made it look more like a comic book than a newspaper. But, I suspect that the paper had to pay for those articles, which partially repaid Gannett for the purchase price of the paper.

    And when the Tribune Corp. bought the LA Times, several editors resigned, because management wanted the fire wall between news articles and advertising removed. Don’t publish anything that advertisers will object to, was the new philosophy.

  3. I started to cut and paste comments which were laughable, but Pascal touched on it with Gannett and the Tribune’s philosophy – advertisements. The newspaper industry was a business first, journalism second. Advertisers were just one of Chomsky’s Five Filters of the Media.

    Way before Chomsky in the 80s, we had Einstein in 1949, telling us the oligarchy controlled the media in this country. The problem is we couldn’t differentiate the truth from the false. I even hear interviewees check themselves on NPR at times because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. What’s funny is the “media checkers” align NPR as liberal who is really more in-line with life/reality/truth-seeking.

    However, we live in an Alice in Wonderland world where up is down, and the truth is irrelevant. Einstein was spot on his analysis but was not invited to the White House to discuss it with the POTUS. Every media entity in the world should have asked Chomsky to present to their board of directors and senior executives to listen and make drastic changes designed to advocate the truth.

    Instead, they marginalized him as the media and political world did to Ralph Nader. They do the same thing to former journalist Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald etc., etc.

    There is no such thing as verification because guilty people don’t respond to your requests. When I caught Ball State University covering up a multi-million dollar loss and requested a press conference so the media could ask questions, President JoAnn Gora decided to write an OpEd instead, which the Gannett rag agreed to print. She lied. Several days later, several more million were discovered to have been lost during a swindle of embarrassing proportions. Instead of a press conference, the school hired lawyers and worked with Gannett to whitewash the public’s story.

    Indy has Lilly and its Foundation, which was used to “reform K-12 in Indiana.” Don’t you think the Gannett rag could have written some great stories?

    IDEM is the most corrupt government entity in the state, but you couldn’t get the IndyStar to do anything. Indiana is always a Top 5 Dirtiest States — nothing from Gannett. And they owned 6-7 newspapers throughout Indiana.

    Those who remember life before social media might have thought you were informed, but the facts dating back to at least 1949 say otherwise. I would imagine that citizens were misinformed long before then as well.

    Just for the record, the US ranks 45th for international press freedom. After Daniel Hale’s conviction, I expect it to drop. When the world realizes the US’s lengths have gone to punish Julian Assange’s torture, they will lose all trust in media and governments. The US government certainly can’t point at China or Russia for their authoritarian governments with our track record in the US and abroad. Every regime we’ve installed has been fascist right-wingers.

    Why is that?

    We’ve been slapping lipstick all over this pig but it’s coming off which is why the censorship is increasing under the smokescreens laid down by the existing oligarchic-run media.

  4. Once again, we have to lament a crisis we brought on ourselves. When I was young, every house in the neighborhood took at least one daily newspaper. Most took all three, The Star, the News (both Pulliam productions), and the Times. Over time, readership declined and the first to go was the Times, followed much later by the News. Finally, the Star, after a handful of intermediate owners, was sold to Gannett.

    A similar thing happened here in Florida. When I first bought my house here, nearly every house got the daily paper delivered each morning, but I noticed that as older home owners died or moved to care facilities, the younger people who bought their homes didn’t take the daily paper. Today the local paper is owned by Gannet, which bought the Naples Daily News and merged those operations. The only difference is in the banner. On the bright side, they did upgrade the funny pages. Where I used to get “Henry”, I now get “Baby Blues.” It’s nice to be able to find something to be grateful for.

  5. I’m a reader who rarely posts here. The stories told fit perfectly with my experience of newspapers in Knoxville, TN. When I moved here 55 years ago I subscribed to two local newspapers, an evening paper and a morning paper. Eventually the morning paper took over as the sole new source. We have very little local coverage relying on television stations for stories. The amount of local investigative reporting is nearly nil.

  6. Just in the past 30 days, the South Bend Tribune wasn’t delivered in the South Bend/Michiana region because it’s printed overnight in Indy. Weather, internet failure, human error, whatever it was, failed, and those subscribers were apologized to.

    What’s remarkable is that The South Bend Tribune building in South Bend is dark, and basically boarded up. The printing is done in Indy. The Tribune met the same demise and is another perfect example of this life changing event. Democracy changing and for the worst!

    Unless! Maybe a billionaire will buy the building, hire the journalists back and run the printing presses that are sitting idle. It’s all there, it just need some electricity. Who is going to step up?

    To have a proper government that isn’t corrupt, you must maintain transparency and the Fourth Estate is the only way to make sure that happens. We are failing.

  7. AgingLGirl; the printing is probably done by the Indianapolis Star in their print factory in Circle Centre Mall which was once thought to be the centerpiece of downtown Indy. Losing all big name brand stores; the Star relocated as the anchor for the Mall, if/when the Star fails, the Mall fails, leaving little downtown shopping. How many other smaller towns will lose their print news if/when this happens?

  8. Todd Smekens. “Instead, they marginalized him as the media and political world did to Ralph Nader. They do the same thing to former journalist Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald etc., etc.”

    Glenn Greenwald started out as a blog journalist, then got picked up by other on-line media. He is now doing astounding journalism from subscriber supported Substack.

    Chris Hedges wrote for print and ink NYT, was forced out, and now, with David Scheer, formerly with print-and-ink Ramparts, both continue courageous journalism from subscriber supported Scheerpost.

    Just as blacklisted I.F. Stone was when he published 60,000-subscriber I.F. Stone Weekly, they remain the most courageous of journalists, perhaps the only ones worth reading.

    It is only the print and ink media that is publishing the work of “former journalists.”

  9. A fundamentally important issue to the survival of Democracy. As local newspapers die, who is watching the auditor, the County Commissioners, the School Board, the Building Inspector? As the Washington Post banner says, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

    It’s getting plenty dark out here in the heartland.

  10. hey,look what i found,a newspaper.mmm lets see, fold over and open,,mmm pres wants to reduce taxes, school shooting in small town,,er,,muffler shop sued for noise issues. ive traveled the country from end to end and a few prov of Canada,eh. on the table at a cafe or seat of a waiting room,hopefully a few pages of knowlege in a land today based in ignorance. sure i no Cronkite but i no social foole either. since Kennedy was shot,ive pretty much took hold of the newspaper and the journalists who,enforced our democracy. the 60s with all the strife and war issues. 70s change and the 80s failure to the working class.the 90s with the darkening of knowlege needed to secure a path that shines in democracy. social media,to me, a total lack of knowlege in a plaice where it should have been strenthened and rewarded. only to be used like a cheap whore for words. i’m no academic,obviously,but i keep abreast of a few subjects,that support the overall over the few who now are convinced they own the game. there are now few journalists who still exist,and dont have commercial media to dictate how they write. being pro Bernie wasn’t my intention,actully,it has my ,from long before,he ran for office. the factual needs to provide a knowlege before one flips,the lever in the booth behind a curtain,(remember that one),was the newspaper,and the knowlege and basis needed to provide other Americans and many abroad,a sense of freedom. today we have murderdoch,and social media yelling shit into ones ear.. context be damn!. i enjoy the read, and follow,ups,my i pad is littered with files,that have the stories and opinions in dated time. i dont overwhelm my personal hardrive with more than a few subjects, but rely on other stories of,the same subject,and,matters, to affirm the thought. silos of info are cheap, app a few,and ya get a mind boggling amount of shit dropped into ones junk mail,and then ya begin to relize who’s tapping on your hardrive,and possibly, jerking your chain..i’d find more enjoyment in the obits..(don’t go there)…
    i use the site commondreams.org. though a hard left site,its has some of the regulars who ive enjoyed and trusted in many years of reading and updating ongoing issues. yes ,i donate but ya don’t have to app it,to enjoy it. i’d rather follow the journalists around than it follow me around.

  11. Todd:
    in NoDak we have a NPR that is as old as a dinosaur and the same old cast since its inception.hense they have a pro red credential on the press patch in their hats. ive heard at least a hundred NPRS across America, not one other has the pasture ridden slosh we have in,local affairs in NoDaks news worthy NPR..and they still continue to ask me for donations…i give to others..

  12. Newspapers might have killed themselves. I have no clue who thought “let’s give our content away for free on the Internet” was a viable business model. At the same time there is part of Corporate America seems to be OK with companies who’s business model is to buy assets, liquidate the capital, and then continue to squeeze until they walk away in bankruptcy.

    Maybe print news was doomed to fail because TV media could somewhat afford to give away the news content for free because the whole business was not built in just new and on air advertising still pays the rent. The the same time local TV news has always been just the thin shell of coverage that the newspaper was, so the business model might have already been cheaper. What has changed for TV media outlets, is that in order to grab eyeballs, they need to keep a constant feed of what I call “newsertainment”, so the veneer of actual news, verification, balanced reporting, and respectability is getting thinner.

    I have to laugh that the fist comment that said look at this facebook link to see the how bad it is.

    I have no idea how to fix this whole mess, but I will agree is it mess. Maybe part of the problem can be solved by forcing local government into more online transparency with regulations on posting meeting minutes, meeting transcripts etc… online. It still means you have to be smart enough to know how local government works to even know what to do with this information.

  13. Aging Girl – Call Mayor Pete for help now that newspapers are transported and he isn’t running for mayor of South Bend anymore.

    We still have editorial overlook, it’s just not the overlook of independent-minded journalists of old. There is no firewall between advertising and, uh, “the news.” Gannett is in the advertising business; the “news” amounts to clickbait. If Ernie Pyle were around he would resign from Gannett’s advertising circulars in favor of a gig with Ramparts.

    So shall we have the gummint in charge of how we are to think or shall we leave that task up to the likes of the moguls of social media who are primarily – you guessed it – in the advertising business – and clickbait?

  14. I too fondly remember newspapers both local and national. They were informative and somewhat entertaining and filled with advertising sharing the cost with us. They employed though one of the most inefficient and outdated means to deliver that content to us; printing it on paper, collating and folding it, distributing it to manual workers like paperboys (full disclosure, my first job), and in later years paper girls, who lugged the paper to front doors. There were good professional journalism papers as well as bad.

    Today in our lives that has been replaced by television entertainment media with about the same time commitment on our part. We watch both local and national channels and get some semblance of local and national news daily. About the same content, and an improved distribution system.

    The internet is the ultimate information distribution network in terms of efficiency and effectiveness though. It allows us to schedule our information time as newspapers did, it requires only infrastructure and not high operating costs for distribution, it doesn’t kill trees, but the choices are completely open in terms of what sources we choose.

    There’s the rub. It’s all up to us. No guided editing. We can choose entertainment over information and bias confirmation over learning and a great many of us do what’s easy and pleasant. Comfortable. Bias confirmation is easily mistaken for learning.

    That history is progress in every way but who it puts the responsibility on to get it right. We collectively are no better than we are individually.

  15. One addition to Pete’s comment, your internet browser can manipulate what you access as well. Google has been caught many times manipulating their search engines and even fined for their efforts during elections.

    The term used is “throttling” and happens all the time.

    Joe Rogan just had 68 videos removed by Spotify. The question is who asked (demanded) that Spotify remove his content? Based on the Twitter response, Spotify lost a lot of paying customers. I’m guessing they got reimbursed like all these other Tech firms.

    Remember, access points (ISPs) your gateways to the internet, are monitored. If the Federal Government wants to know your search history for whatever reason, all they have to do is contact ATT or Xfinity. 😉

    Not to mention all the cookies that your computer gobbles up when it visits a website.

    You should try submitting documents to Wikileaks to see the level of encryption required to make it private. We talk about free speech and transparency and democracy, but the facts are a much different story. We are literally ranked 45th for Freedom of Press globally. #Pathetic

  16. I moved to Indy from Chicago back in 1976. I thought the Indy McMega-Media The Star and TV News was really vanilla reporting compared to the Chicago Media which was fearless in reporting, local politicians were often grilled.

    When Nuvo came on the scene especially with Harrison Ullman there was finally someone who would dare to critique the local yokels of politics. The Star by contrast seemed bent toward the Crony-Capitalism and Crony Politics of our local and state Republicrat Politicians. Sports, Sports, Sports and that new restaurant/bar or boutique was the focus of The Star.

    Sadly, I think the days of investigative journalism on a local level is gone.

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