media criticism News coverage

Is community journalism the last bastion of news objectivity?

If you’re reading a community newspaper, chances are you are reading what seems to be a dying story format:  an unbiased account of the news.

A president who has been overly critical of journalism has driven newspeople on the national level to disregard time-honored canons of objectivity. In years past, we would have reported what a president said or did, and what others said about him.  Now many think they have to put a label on the newsmaker – calling the president a racist instead of just reporting his words and actions and letting the reader decide whether that represented racism.

But what about readers?  Does it matter to them?

Surveys say it does:

  • A recent Knight Foundation study reported that 66 percent of Americans said most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. Back in 1984, 42 percent held that view.
  • On a media trust scale with scores ranging from a low of zero to a high of 100, the average American scores a 37.
  • Unfortunately, media trust has itself become a partisan issue, with Democrats largely trusting the media and Republicans distrusting the media.

The recent flurry of news mergers and buyouts also concerns the public.  More than 9 in 10 Americans in a Gallup survey are very (68 percent) or somewhat (26 percent) concerned that corporate views would influence coverage if a large company purchased their local news organization.

When you talk with readers about these issues, remember that they don’t see the media landscape like we journalists do.  They look at newspapers, TV news, online news and other outlets and just see journalism.  We see hard news, news analysis, news advocacy, infotainment and lots more.

So tell your readers that you’re committed to presenting the news fairly and objectively – to airing all important sides of stories.  And that no matter what they may see on MSNBC or Fox or some national newspaper or news show, your newspaper is committed to the best traditions of objectivity, neutrality and fairness.

An old definition of public relations is “doing right and telling people about it.” At community newspapers, we’re committed to doing right.  But we need to be more about the business of telling people about it.

Fake News media criticism

A community journalism response to the ‘fake news’ phenomenon

In a challenging environment with fewer resources, greater vulnerabilities and increasing attacks from politicians and the politically motivated, how should news organizations respond? One editor-publisher’s approach — a calm, respectful but strong defense of journalism and its essential role in democracy — seems to work.

Brian Hunt, editor and publisher of the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin, circ. 16,000, gave a speech at the local library and boiled it down to a 2,400-word column in the May 7 edition, headlined “Community journalism in the era of fake news.” We excerpted it on The Rural Blog at, and you can read the entire original at

Hunt begins by explaining that fake news “is as old as communication itself. . . . What is newer historically are the advertiser-driven platforms and technologies that now enable information to accelerate and expand without regard to any formal vetting or verification.”

With technology and consumer data held by Google, Facebook and other advertising-driven platforms, “Truth matters less today than reach,” Hunt says. “The content that wraps around these ads doesn’t need to be true, it just needs to be able to entice us to click. And we really click, motivated in part by our very human desire to improve ourselves and to belong to something. . . . They know what persuades us as individuals and they can easily help us sort ourselves into very small groups of like-minded groups. What could go wrong?”

A tribal and divisive politics, for one thing. “I don’t want to paint social media as the enemy of truth,” Hunt says. “It’s not — though a business model focused exclusively on serving ads based on our likes does present challenges in terms of what is true and what is merely effective. . . . We all gravitate to information that feels like it fits our perspective. It’s human nature. Fake news stories — like spam emails that preceded them — work because they can cheaply exploit known human behavior.”

Hunt gives a short history of journalism and explains: “As journalists, we are trained in critical thinking. In looking at all sides of an issue. In separating our personal feelings from the work of telling true and balanced stories that enable readers to make up their own mind. The rise of objective journalism had a dramatic impact on the news media – and in our world. The advent of the advertiser-funded internet particularly, and the scale at which broadcast news outlets proliferated and extended themselves, is a new wild west of information dissemination. So how do we navigate the vast amounts of information we encounter to ensure that what we read and what we share are true?”

Hunt recommends the “Stop, Search, Subscribe” motto of the News Media Alliance, formerly the Newspaper Association of America, but acknowledges, “What is true or false may not be as enticing as “our desire to believe in something shared.”

He gives examples: “The president of the United States declares the press the enemy of the people. In our valley, we drive by billboards that vilify our reporters and editors. Fake news accusations are now common for stories that don’t suit a particular audience, true or not. We’re increasingly intolerant about information we don’t like, for sides of the argument that disagree with our side. For community newspapers such as the U-B, this loss of collective understanding and tolerance threatens the very sense of a shared and diverse community.”

After Donald Trump was elected, “I began hearing from readers who seemed confused about what was published as a news story and what was published as a personal opinion column or an editorial — definitions that newspapers have relied on for decades are suddenly not widely understood,” Hunt says. “This became a small wave of complaints that national political coverage in the U-B did not match reader expectations — they knew things we didn’t include, and they often disbelieved what we did include.”

Hunt gives examples of the extreme without being judgmental: “I’ve been challenged on why we include people of color in our newspaper. I’ve heard from readers who question why, when two-thirds of our region voted for Trump, the U-B would ever publish anything remotely critical of his presidency. I learn things in these conversations. Most notably, the people I speak with are not unaccomplished, not unintelligent, not uncaring.  We know these people. You know these people. Fake news and the isolated intolerance that can feed it gets to us all.”

Such challenges to newspapers “threaten to eat away at the core of what makes us communities,” Hunt says. “Strong communities support good community newspapers, and strong community newspapers support good communities. That’s the best way I know to show how much we depend upon each other. How much benefit we can together achieve. For that, I hope you are all subscribers, that you encourage others to be subscribers. And that you continue to challenge us to be the best community newspaper we can be.”

So, how did Hunt’s column go over?

In an email to The Rural Blog, he said reaction “has, for the most part, been positive/understanding, with a fair amount of surprise around the idea that the bitterness and intolerance of our national politics does indeed have real local impact.” He also said, “I have to believe many rural papers are in the same boat.”

There is evidence the column had a positive impact, Hunt said: “a dramatic slow-down in complaints/stops based on the perception that we’re too liberal. . . . Stories that are perceived to reflect on Trump as a person seem to generate the most outcry. The policy actions, health care debate, etc. have not.”

Hunt’s column indicates that he knows and respects his readers. He mentioned Trump, but he did it factually, and he avoided attacking any politician, faction or institution. He explained journalism’s role in democracy and community, and subscribers’ increasingly important role in the news business. Every newspaper’s audience is different, but Hunt provides a good example for other editors and publishers.

Ethics media criticism

Fake news: Nothing new in the history of journalism

Fake news is nothing new.  When people talk about it on the internet and social media, they treat it like it’s society’s newest trend.  But that’s far from the truth. Fake news is as old as … wait for it … the story of the birth of Jesus.

But let’s start with the definition of fake news:  It’s reporting stuff that never happened and treating it as true.

Like saying Hillary Clinton ran a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington.

And while the internet spreads fake news faster than ever before, it’s nothing new – fake news goes all the way back to the beginning of American journalism.

Some early news stories were probably fake just because there was no way to verify them.  Newspapers did the best they could, but if someone told the editor that the royal governor was stealing from the treasury, there was no way that could be checked out.

In 1782, no less a journalistic icon than Ben Franklin published a fake news story that Native Americans seeking an alliance with Britain had sent the king a “bag of scalps.” It never happened.

In 1835, the New York Sun ran a series that purported to report on an astronomer who had built a telescope powerful enough to observe life on the moon.  Not a story, mind you – a whole series of articles that described the moon inhabitants and their civilization in great detail.  And the end, the paper told its readers that they had just been kidding.

That’s only the tip of the fake news iceberg.  The stories about the new phenomenon of fake news are – you guessed it – fake news.  It’s been around as long as there has been news.

This week we celebrate the best news mankind has ever heard.  The news was so significant that God entrusted it to angels – the word “angel” is a Greek word for messenger.  According to scripture, God often entrusted news to “messengers” — you could say that angels were God’s journalists.

But as soon as the Good News about the birth of Christ was written down, the fake news started showing up.  And today, much of what we believe a bout the nativity story is fake news.

For instance:

•Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. The early church set the day of Christ’s birth in December as a way to help replace a pagan festival that was held on Dec. 25.

•The angels did not sing to the shepherds. An angel spoke to the shepherds, then a lot of angels began praising God, but we have added the “singing” part.

•The wise men probably did not visit Jesus right after his birth in Bethlehem. They look cool in nativity scenes, but they really came a year or so later. And we’re not even sure there were three of them — we only infer that from the number of gifts.

But despite all the fake news about the good news we celebrate at Christmas, that good news is not diminished by the fake news and legends that have grown up around the birth of Christ.

And no less a philosopher than John Stuart Mill reminded us that truth is dynamic – so we should not ban false utterances because truth only becomes stronger when it grapples with a lie.  How do you know, Mill asked, whether what you believe is true, unless you have to defend it against non-truth?

Fake news is reprehensible, and digital media certainly give it more reach and power than ever before. So it’s important that newspapers report the truth and expose the lies.

The journalism “family tree” is a lot like your own.  There are saints and sinners, martyrs and scoundrels. But after more than two centuries that include lies and hoaxes and fake news, journalism has never been freer.  Or more responsible.

And that’s something we can all celebrate on a holiday dedicated to the original “good news.”

media criticism

It’s open season on journalists, and that’s bad news for everybody

(Editor’s note:  Randall King is a former professional journalist who now teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana.  This blog is used by permission of the Indianapolis Star, where it appeared earlier this month.)

I don’t know who will win the presidential race this November, but I know who has already lost 2016: the U.S. news media. Not “the media,” as many incorrectly say, as in “the media lies …,” “the media distorts …” or “the media controls…” “Media,” as a collective noun should be plural, yet we speak of it as a monolith — as if all media organizations think and walk and report the same way. They don’t, yet collectively the news media are losing the American public and if it continues, we all lose.

Leading the bash this year is the biggest loudmouth in the room: candidate Donald Trump, who rarely misses a chance to kill the messenger that made him. Trump has made the “lying media” a centerpiece of his campaign strategy, if there is one. He’s mused publicly about “opening up” libel laws to make it easier to go after reporters, and tweeted recently, “It’s not freedom of the press when others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false,” he said.

Uh … it kind of means exactly that, Mr. Trump. But if you still don’t understand, I would like to invite you to sit in on my media law class next spring. I think you will have the time.

This season of media bashing is not confined to one political side, though. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has gone more than 250 days without holding a formal news conference and complained openly of a different “Hillary standard” when it comes to public scrutiny. Bernie Sanders criticized the “corporate media” who, presumably, ignored his candidacy. Still more dismaying are attempts to shut down media coverage on college campuses nationwide — often student protesters denying access to student journalists who could give attention to their grievances.

Media bias is nothing new, of course, but this seems to be on a different level. In my more than 30-year career as a journalist and media educator, I’ve never seen a time when not only the conduct of journalists is suspect, but the very consensus of their role in a free society is misunderstood or dismissed.

No doubt, many of these wounds are self-inflicted. Cable television has redefined “news channel” to mean talking opinionheads more than actual reporting. Yes, on some issues reporters betray a source or omission bias — who they talk to and what they leave out are more illustrative of bias than how they cover it. National surveys do show a predominance of Democratic voting and left-leaning views among elite national journalists. But the causal linkage between those personal views and their actual reporting is more difficult to discern.

Here’s the crux. Every single day, in communities across this country, journalists hit the streets with one purpose: to tell their audience what is going on. And, in spite of huge resource limitations and barriers to getting information, they still largely succeed at that task. In fact, their daily work is the grist for the opinion-writing/talking head/blabber radio/social-sharing/media-bashing mill that drives some of us crazy. Someone had to find the “truth” that everyone else is arguing about. Reporters do that, but they’re losing the battle.

Job losses and economic failings of media companies have been well documented for two decades. As an educator, I see the effects of this each fall as fewer students declare journalism as a major. It has always been difficult to get 18-year-olds to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions and report “truth” through professional journalistic methods. Now, those students’ families, friends and pocketbooks tell them there is no value in that pursuit, so they are better off taking their communication skills elsewhere.

I worry about these declines most in the small communities I’ve been privileged to serve. Some form of national media will survive the digital onslaught, but what happens to local reporting in towns and cities where there is less money and less public trust to keep media in business? Who will tell us what’s going on in local government? Schools? Streets? How will we know the good, bad and ugly of our world without someone holding up the mirror? I don’t always want to see what’s reflected, but I need to see it, as a citizen and a human being.

So please support the local and national journalists who try — imperfectly — to get it right every day. If we keep losing journalists, and everyday, just-the-facts journalism in our media, we will lose a part of our American soul so important to the Founders it led the Bill of Rights: Free press, right in there with speech, religion and assembly, unencumbered by government.

When reporters mess it up, let them know about it, but don’t stop reading and watching. We don’t want to live in an America where “the media” are silent and “truth” is only what our politicians say it is.