No news is bad news

How the media plays a key role in maintaining democracy




The First Amendment is on display near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA.


“Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

The Washington Post rolled out this phrase in early 2017 as its first slogan in its 140-year history. The phrase is not original to the paper. Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, also the founder of Amazon, said he cribbed it from Watergate and former Post reporter Bob Woodward. Woodward has reportedly said he grabbed it from the pages of a Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment.

Whoever said it first, the sentiment and idea behind it is as old as our Republic: without a well-informed citizenry, we cannot make informed decisions about our government, our leaders or our communities.

“The role of the press in America is outlined by the First Amendment,” said Joe McQuaid, publisher of The New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. “Their job was to report and inform the public so that they could know what their government was doing and be a part of it. …The worst thing that the United States has to fear is an ignorant populace that is either ignorant, apathetic or both about their role of civics in the country and participating in their role in the government.”

With so many hurling allegations of “fake news,” and with actual fake news flying onto social media platforms at breakneck speed, it can not only be hard to remember what the purpose of the press is in our democracy and how to be discerning consumers of media, but also how to convey that information to our children.

“Media is really our children’s currency — their language and primary source and means of information and communication,” said Rona Zlokower, executive director of Media Power Youth, a Manchester-based media literacy organization.

“They are receiving [information] all the time and often times we have not made the effort to teach them how to understand and interpret as well as access and create media that has validity and that comes from a valid source…whether it’s trying to get the reader to do something or think something and what is not being told in that story. And it’s really very, very important.”

The journalist’s role

“The press does not have a role in government but it plays an important watchdog role, sounding an alarm when government doesn't seem to be serving the public's best interests,” said Howard Altschiller, executive editor of Seacoast Media Group, which publishes the Portsmouth Herald/Foster's Daily Democrat.

“The press holds government officials accountable for their actions by alerting citizens. It renders complex topics understandable and, on a positive side, fosters an exchange of ideas and information between the people and their elected representatives.”

And not just the government, adds Lisa Miller, associate professor of journalism and English at the University of New Hampshire. A journalist’s job includes monitoring what anyone in power does, she said, as well as “giving voice to people who are affected by what those in power do, but don't have power themselves.”

Anyone from a reporter paid to work for a news organization to a person posting on Twitter can and do call themselves journalists. Anyone can post a photo or a blog on a website. But a journalist, regardless of platform or pay, is expected to adhere to standards and ethics.

To understand the nuts and bolts of what a journalist is and does, the American Press Institute (API) put together a list of elements common to good journalism they drew from the book The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Among the elements listed is the idea that a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. That means gathering accurate and reliable facts and then putting them in a meaningful context.

“This ‘journalistic truth’,” according to API, “is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, subject to further investigation.”

To do this they have to be transparent about sources and methods as much as possible so that their audience can assess and ultimately judge the information for themselves, according to API.

Another element is that a journalist has to be loyal to citizens above all else. That means whether they are working for a big media corporation or they are an at-home blogger, a journalist has to put the public interest and truth above their own self-interest and assumptions and even the corporation’s shareholders and advertisers.

Furthermore, a cornerstone of journalism is verifying information and then verifying it some more.

“While there is no standardized code as such, every journalist uses certain methods to assess and test information to ‘get it right,’” according to API. “Being impartial or neutral is not a core principal of journalism. Because the journalist must make decisions, he or she is not and cannot be objective. But journalistic methods are objective.”

That means a journalist will seek out multiple witnesses, disclose information about sources when possible and ask various sides for their comments, according to API.

Moreover, a journalist has to be an independent monitor of power.

Enter the watchdog journalist.

Watchdog journalism

Some consider watchdog journalism to be simply muckraking or playing “gotcha” with sources. But what it means is being more than a passive observer of the news, being someone who seeks out the news and goes deeper.

“We are supposed to be making sure that A) government is open; and B) whatever it is doing, the press is reporting on it for its readers. That’s the watchdog role,” McQuaid said. “It doesn’t have to be a 10-month investigation and thousands of dollars, which few people have anymore, nor does it have to be a ‘Deep Throat’ just dumping information in your laps. Rather it is just the hard grunt work of attending government meetings, looking at government contracts and listening when someone said, ‘Hey, how come someone is doing this? How come someone is doing that?’”

Image Courtesy of NBC News

At President Trump's first solo press conference in February, he discussed several topics including "fake" news.

For example, a reporter might go to a city council meeting to cover an issue. He or she will take notes and report what was said. Watchdog journalism means taking that information and then digging deeper to get opposing views, supporting documents, and researching the context in which the issue is occurring, among other things. The result could mean the uncovering of some malfeasance or scandal, an unreported problem or success, or it could simply mean providing more information to the public than they had previously.

“All journalism should be watchdog journalism,” said veteran journalist Nancy West, who founded the nonprofit New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism and is the executive editor of www.indepthnh.org. “I tell my students that all reporters must be investigative reporters. There are too few of us and we are all working harder than ever, mostly with few raises.”

That’s a problem, Miller said, “…because news organizations have had to cut staff in recent years, there are fewer reporters covering local and state government, fewer acting as watchdogs. That's not a good thing for citizens.”

And yet, distrust of the media is growing. According to a September 2016 Gallup Poll looking at Americans’ trust in the mass media, 32 percent of those polled say they have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust, down from an all-time high of 72 percent in 1976, the era of investigative journalism surrounding Watergate and Vietnam.

The Gallup poll also found that this dip is nonpartisan. Between 2015 and 2016 trust in the media fell from 55 percent to 51 percent among Democrats, 33 percent to 31 percent among independents and 32 percent to 14 percent among Republicans.

“In my experience most reporters are straightforward, honest people who work hard to get the facts and try to present their stories in a fair, impartial and unbiased manner under tight time constraints,” Altschiller said. “Unfortunately, I don't think that's the common perception of news reporters.”

That perception isn’t helped by the proliferation of partisan news sources offering one-sided coverage, by politicians calling news they don’t like “fake” or by the infiltration of actual fake news into easily sharable platforms.

‘Fake news’

Miller describes “fake news” as “false information presented as an objective news story, in the format of a news story.”

Some recent examples floating around online, as reported by the fact checking and general debunking website www.snopes.com, include Disney World permanently closing after damage caused by Hurricane Irma and Arizona Senator John McCain accidentally voting no on the Affordable Care Act vote.

These examples are demonstrable fake news stories. But there have been many stories published by arguably reputable news sources that have also been given that label by politicians, namely President Donald Trump. But for those who think the tension between the White House and the press is new, it’s not.

“The distrust that built up between reporters and the White House during the Vietnam War came to a head during the Watergate scandal and never abated,” Altschiller said. “While President Trump's high-profile attacks on the press are troubling, President Obama in his eight years prosecuted more leakers and whistleblowers than the three presidents before him.”

Fake news, and even the tension between politicians and the press, can be barrier for people seeking that information. A recent Poll from The Pew Center showed that 83 percent of Americans think current tensions have made the relationship between the Trump administration and the news media unhealthy. And 73 percent of Americans say these tensions are getting in the way of access to important national political news and information.

This is an issue because those who are engaged and informed, at least on a local level, tend to be the ones making the decisions. For example, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that roughly one in five U.S. adults who feel highly attached to their communities have much stronger ties to local news than those who do not feel attached. In other words, they have more of a desire to stay up on current local events. Of those, 59 percent follow local news very closely — about twice the share of the unattached, the Pew study showed.

Moreover, 44 percent of those people regularly get community news from three or more different source types, and about a third think their local media do a good job of keeping them informed, the study showed. And 27 percent of the highly attached people, who say they always vote in local elections.

Being media literate

The public has a job to do, Zlokower said, when it comes to the press: to be conscious consumers of news and to help their children be the same. Read or watch the news with your children. Ask questions, such as what is the story being told? and who is telling it? who is telling the story? The latter question, she said, can help figure out what the presenter or author’s bias, if any, might be.

Miller offers similar advice.

“People should pay attention to sourcing of a story,” she said. “How does the journalist know what he or she knows and tells you? It should be clear from the story. Sources should be clearly and thoroughly identified; their connection to the story or the news should also be clear.

“Journalists must try to get sources as close to the main news as possible. So readers should also ask themselves how knowledgeable they think a source is, based on what the reporter includes in a story about the source.”

Parents should also ask, what is the story not telling me? Do I need to do more research to find out what was left out of the story? And is this story trying to influence or persuade me to do something?

“So many people can now produce news. It’s so important that kids understand that there are a lot of people out there who want to get them to do things whether it’s to vote a certain way or to believe a certain way or to spread a certain story or to buy a certain thing or to adopt a certain lifestyle,” Zlokower said.

“They need to have basic media literacy skills and know how to access real information, how to interpret it, how to analyze it, how to take it apart, and then how to create their own media that does have clarity and truthfulness and is not meant to be hurtful or influence somebody in a negative way.” 

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist living in Keene.

More from our special Democracy Deconstructed series

Raising civic-minded and engaged youth

How local schools and families are raising children to be civic-minded and knowledgeable about the world around them

Welcome to the New Hampshire melting pot

How school districts are integrating new American students into the classroom and encouraging tolerance

Lessons in citizenship

Why civics education is important and a look at how civics is being taught in NH classrooms
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