PRESSING THE ISSUES: Connecting newsrooms to their communities

Mar 21 • FEATURE BOTTOM, NEWS & VIEWS, Op-EdNo Comments on PRESSING THE ISSUES: Connecting newsrooms to their communities

It’s probably a good thing I can’t run for a while. Instead of running last Saturday, I sat in on a Free Movement Social Justice workshop, discussing the role of the press in developing a healthy local community.

The press seems to be everyone’s favorite Opposition Party. Hollywood producer, Breitbart News founder and presidential advisor-in-chief Steve Bannon actually called the press “the Opposition Party.” Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, member of the Freedom of the Press Caucus, figures it’s better to bypass the Fourth Estate entirely. He said getting our news directly from the president “might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

But this regime isn’t the only entity bashing the press. Lesser-known candidates and causes routinely call out corporate media for not covering what’s important to them. Since November’s election, lifelong liberals lament failings of the press to adequately cover the demise of democracy and rise of this regime.

Fiona Morgan of Free Press ably facilitated a complex conversation about the local press. Several people with diverse backgrounds and common goals of understanding how our local press might serve the community better-shared observations and concerns. It was no gathering of highly paid outside activists. Each of us contributes to the emotional and economic health of our community—so we would really like to see it flourish.

Ms. Morgan asked where we get information about local issues. The Star News and local TV were the usual suspects for fear-based “if it bleeds, it leads” stories. Bad things happen, but snapshot reporting of last night’s shooting that disappears as soon as the mugshot fades advances fear, not flourishing communities. Participants rely on select social media sites for some news and relevant happenings. NPR, specifically WHQR’s weekly Coastline program, was mentioned as a good source of information. Happily, one participant (not me) cited encore as a place she received information about events and issues of local interest.

During our spirited conversation, one participant said when she contacted a reporter about an event, she was told, “Sure, I’d like to write about it. But you have to make a spectacle—we’ll cover that.”

Spectacles, snapshots and simple fear-based “us vs. them” stories get printed. Over. And over.
What’s stopping us from doing better?

Several participants noted the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine as an obstacle. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 and killed in 1987. Per Wikipedia, it required holders of a “broadcast license to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the Commission’s view—honest, equitable and balanced.”

In my view, another contributor is a lost boundary between “communications” and “journalism.” There are far too many “communications experts,” able to develop marketing and messaging strategies to turn a profit for a brand. As well, there are far fewer investigative journalists listening to conversations their communities have.

There are far too many “communications experts,” able to develop marketing and messaging strategies to turn a profit for a brand. As well, there are far fewer investigative journalists listening to conversations their communities have.

After the workshop, I spoke with another member of the healthcare sector. She was confused how to improve the ability of the press to develop healthy communities. She wisely pointed out the “press is failing” is a lot—like in how they’re saying “the healthcare system is broken.” Healthcare and the press are complex, multilayered systems. In one medical office, a doc might prescribe highly addictive substances that do more harm than good. A provider in the same office might be trying to get a different patient off the same drugs. Simultaneously, drug companies and other business interests are lobbying heavily to prevent any possible restrictions on physician’s prescribing their profit-generating product. There are pressures inside and outside the office impacting the health of the system. Similarly, reporters, newsrooms, TV stations, and such have pressures from inside and outside their offices, too.

Who knew healthcare could be so complicated? Who knew maintaining a free press could be so complicated? I mean, who knew? (Most of us, I hope.)

Ms. Morgan and Free Press appear to know. In April, as one part of a complex strategy to strengthen the press, they will be launching “News Voices: North Carolina” and engaging in conversations to connect newsrooms a little more closely to the civic life of communities.

And, seriously, Rep. Smith, trust the president for the “unvarnished truth?” Any president? I’d sooner trust the fox to guard the chickens.

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