A more nuanced understanding of 'journalism' is desperately needed — and we need our communities’ help
This piece originally ran on Medium. It has been republished here with the author's permission.
At the Trusting News project, we work to empower journalists to demonstrate credibility by helping people understand journalism. Never has that been more important than today.
Journalists are heading to work — the day after a mass shooting in a community newsroom — to keep telling stories that improve public life. In fact, the surviving members of the Capital Gazette newsroom kept working yesterday. As one of them, Chase Cook, tweeted: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
We don’t know yet how or whether national anti-journalism rhetoric influenced the Annapolis shooter. His beef was old — he had filed a defamation lawsuit against the paper and a columnist back in 2011. But we know the narrative of journalists as enemies has been normalized in too many circles. We’ve got to do more to change it, and we need to ask for our communities’ help.
Here are two posts that shine a light on the urgency of the problem. They’re from staff members a Trusting News partner newsroom, the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah. These two things happened in that newsroom yesterday.
It’s true that angry people on the fringes of society have always called newsrooms to complain. I imagine it would be difficult to find journalists who haven’t picked up a newsroom phone only to be yelled at and accused of making the world a worse place. And since yesterday I’ve seen dozens of journalists posting their own experiences — tales of scary people showing up and making threats.
But we have to dwell on the fact that political divisiveness now drives public perception of journalism, much more than in past eras. As a Baltimore Sun editorial pointed out last night:
Fox News spent some time on air Thursday afternoon dissecting the Capital’s political bent to see if any of its news articles or editorials might have incited such an incident, only to eventually conclude that it was a solid, local newspaper.
Let us repeat an idea that has motivated Trusting News work since it began in 2016: When people hear the word “journalism,” they often don’t consider local news.
Some of our newsroom partners interviewed their own community members last year about trust. And even when those interviews were between a community weekly newspaper and one of its readers, many folks jumped straight to national political coverage to kick off the conversation. They wanted to talk about “the media.” They weren’t thinking about the person they were eyeball to eyeball with — someone who lived near them and shopped, ate, worshipped and parented alongside them.
Across the industry, we need to do a better job of explaining our work, demonstrating our credibility and actively earning trust. That’s absolutely true for the 24-hour cable news cycle. But it’s true in a different way for local newsrooms.
Community newsrooms need to tell a consistent, repetitive story about what motivates our work, the range of information and stories we offer, what sets us apart, who we are, how we operate and how people can reach us. Telling that story should be a constant drumbeat — part of the rhythm of our work. And as part of that drumbeat, we need to ask for the help of our communities.
Think about your subscribers and members. Think about your devoted readers, viewers and listeners. Think about what you wish they would do about this problematic narrative, and then articulate that wish.
Look at what the journalists at the Capital Gazette had been working on recently. It feels so familiar: city hall, charity work, local crime and impressive teens. As a newsroom, try making your own list. Then in a column, in a social media thread, in a newsletter or on air, share the list. Demonstrate the range of your contributions to public life. Say something like:
“We know it’s easy to get caught up in divisive rhetoric about journalism. Let us remind you what day-to-day journalism looks like to us. We invite your questions, ideas and feedback. And we ask for your help in sharing this with people whose concept of journalism could use an injection of credible, local news.”
Please, let’s stop accepting that people’s concept of journalism is narrow, politically driven and hate-filled. Let’s invite our communities to get to know us better. Let’s use our platforms and our voices to change the narrative and expand the definition. Let’s invite our supporters to help us by empowering them to stand up for journalism and deploying them to tell this story.
The Trusting News project, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund.