As most trusted news sources, local outlets can do more to promote media literacy, especially around elections

The success of election-deniers in the Midterm Elections shows just how much work confronts us in our efforts to increase media literacy in the US.

As happened in primary contests in August, candidates who promoted the Republican Party’s so-called “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen did well again, although the anticipated red wave did not appear to have materialized. Nonetheless, the strength of the disinformation and how it continues to shape voters is troubling.

At least 80 people who questioned the 2020 election results won congressional seats, Axios reported.

(Photo by Jernej Furman via Flickr)

This year for U.S. National Media Literacy Week advocates focused on ways schools can do a better job of teaching young readers how to spot fake news and verify information. Already, 15 states promote some form of media literacy education, although last year, Illinois became the first to mandate instruction. 

It’s clearly not enough.

Media literacy teaches readers (and viewers) how to apply critical thinking skills to the stories, social media posts, images and videos that saturate our lives.

Media literacy advocates want consumers to not only better evaluate the information but also to make better decisions about where it comes from. 

Obviously these efforts benefit all of us in the news business, particularly as we compete with hyper-partisan, emotionally validating news sources for attention. It’s even harder to stand out when our words lack the glitz to push information past the whirl of video reels and portable technologies. Printed facts are not always glamorous. 

But what’s often lost in both our coverage of media literacy and in the discussion about its role in creating a smarter society is our own part in educating consumers about what we do, how we do it and why it matters. Given the mistrust, falsely promoted, around elections since 2020, the Associated Press made a point to explain how it called the winners in elections. There are multiple ways local news organizations can explain how they cover elections and why they choose even to rely on the AP.

Local media outlets remain the most trusted news source, according to a Knight-Gallup study released at the end of October. 

Six in 10 Americans believe local news organizations are informing their communities about what matters, and local journalists are seen as more caring (36%), trustworthy (29%) and neutral or unbiased (23%).

Additionally, Americans think the local news media strike a more balanced perspective than national media: 53% describe their local news media as “about right,” while 26% say it is “too liberal” and 15% “too conservative.”

Although we are not immune to growing mistrust in media more generally, we have an opportunity to leverage the trust that we did have to help promote media literacy. 

That means partnering with schools to help young readers understand what we, as their neighbors, do to report a story. While it’s not our job to defend national media, it benefits all of us who practice journalism when we note that the vast majority of journalists, regardless of where they work, do try to be fair and impartial. 

Even though our newsrooms are smaller and our editors and reporters are stretched covering larger and larger coverage areas, we need to make a commitment to promote media literacy.

In sharing how we verify information and images, we are not only giving our readers tools to help them decipher what is real or fake, what can be trusted or not, we also are reinforcing the idea that truth is a value to us, too.

The explanation helps fill a void where suspicion thrives. In other words, people make assumptions about our motives when they don’t know any better. 

Many of our readers also do not know the difference between news and opinion. I recently had a student cite two news articles to bolster a scientific case they were trying to make. One was an opinion piece (clearly labeled as such) and the other was from a credible website, but they had taken the information out of context. Both articles also were outdated.

The pandemic, flu season, the upcoming school board meeting and the price of groceries all give us an opportunity to explain, explain and explain again how we are reporting, what we are paying attention to and why it matters.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

To paywall or not? Young readers provide the answer

A few years ago, while preparing to teach a copy editing course for the first time, I stumbled across a hidden gem in The New York Times digital edition: Copy Edit This!, an interactive quiz that tests readers on grammar and word usage errors from recent Times articles.

The Times’s standards editor catches the errors and then explains why they are wrong. Here is an example from installment No. 1: “The trial has suggested that corruption in Mexico is as bad, if not worse, than many thought.” The problem, according to Editor Philip B. Corbett is that “as bad” needs another “as,” which readers learn as they click on a word in the quiz to see what’s wrong with it. To be correct, it should read “as bad as.”

In my class, which I teach online, I split the students into copy desks to work together on a different quiz each week. It is a feature of the course they seem generally to like.

(Photo by Febe Roels Via Flickr)

But a few weeks ago, a student reached out to let me know that they could not access the quiz through our college’s library database, which they had been able to do in the past. It turns out that we no longer offer students access to the digital version of the New York Times. The library asked for it in its budget but was denied because Columbia College Chicago, like many other tuition-dependent institutions in higher education, is facing a mounting deficit, in part, resulting from declining enrollment.

I immediately contacted my fellow journalism faculty colleagues, irate that we had lost access to the copy editing quiz and all of the multimedia elements that are part of the digital edition of the Times. I also implored my students to purchase a subscription, which for them, at a student discount, would amount to one fancy coffee drink per month. Few of them agreed, after the fact, so without access, I eliminated the quiz from the course. 

Although this anecdote says much about the state of journalism education, as part of higher education in general, it really for me is illustrative of the larger problem we face within our industry. It is incredibly difficult to get people to pay for news, for quality features, even as we continue to invest in them. I find it telling, and sobering, that we cannot even convince future journalists to pay as consumers, even as they expect to be fairly compensated to produce news after they graduate. 

In the United States, only 21 percent of respondents to the 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News report paid for news. 

In May, the Nieman Lab looked at why that was, drawing on a scholarly article by Danish researcher Tim Groot Kormelink. The analysis is interesting, noting factors such as cost and whether or not they actually follow up after subscribing, but it didn’t offer clearly defined resolution. There were no lightbulbs.

But other studies have suggested that young readers may be willing to pay for a news subscription if the price is lower. 

Many news outlets use deals to lure readers and then sock them with a price increase. This increase can often be negotiated down by calling and complaining. But really, that is not a relationship built on trust. 

Gateway Journalism Review is not behind a paywall, and we are no longer sharing content in our digital newsletter that requires a subscription to a particular news outlet. I fundamentally believe that news cannot be behind a paywall. Many people simply will move on. We can lament that we did this to ourselves in the early days of delivering content online. We can lament that we still have not figured out a profitable model to replace the classified ads that kept us afloat. We can continue to charge a premium to some readers willing or with the means to pay, further dividing our communities between the informed and the uniformed. 

The attraction of nonprofit news organizations is that they don’t have to figure this out except that they also have to figure this out. Whether through donations, grant funding or private investment, it still costs to produce quality news, and someone pays when it’s not the reader or viewer.

Frankly, I believe that the membership model, or the “freemium model,” is the one in which we should embrace. GJR will be launching such a model next year for our print subscribers, following the lead of digital news successes like Axios. The Chicago Sun-Times just this week announced that it was eliminating its digital paywall.

A hard paywall keeps people out. A soft paywall keeps people engaged until they run out of free articles. A membership model allows us to embrace branded and premium content for certain subscribers while continuing to preach the very real ideals about journalism and our vital role in protecting democracy, of being watchdogs of giving people accurate and responsible content that they need. 

Public radio through its pledge drives connects journalists with donors, something more news organizations should do. When I get a solicitation from Leila Fadel, the host of Morning Edition for NPR, when I read her personal story and commitment to journalism, I’m instantly connected. Newspapers do that less, preferring to keep journalists away from the unsavory side of the business, even though that side is what actually keeps us in business. We can do more to make the business of news personal for our readers at the most local level.

In the end I can certainly force my students to pay for a New York Times digital subscription but that doesn’t change the fundamental problem that they are part of a public that doesn’t want to pay for quality news. After all, their college has already sent them a powerful message about the value.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Journalism educators need to up their game to stay relevant in their own changing industry

For a decade now, I have been teaching journalism without officially having left the business.

I keep one foot in journalism because I cannot imagine life without it, which sounds admittedly old-fashioned and also is something I cannot teach. Nor is it necessarily practical. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts journalism jobs will decline by 4.8% by 2030. 

It’s not all bad news. Although newsroom employment in the United States has dropped by 26% since 2008, most of the losses have been at traditional newspapers. Digital news jobs are growing, according to Pew Research. As I remind my photojournalism students, there are plenty of jobs for them in broadcast TV. 

Photo by Esther Vargas via Flickr

Nonetheless, this creates a dilemma for many of us who love journalism and teach journalism, especially with fewer students going to college. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the undergraduate student body dropped by nearly 1.4 million students or 9.4% during the pandemic. (This incidentally is a good story for local news organizations in communities with colleges or universities. Now, more than ever, is the time to hire a higher ed reporter or at least give the beat to an aspiring student journalist, something I’ve recommended before in this space.) 

In journalism education, we’ve had to rebrand what we do to some extent so that our students have marketable skills. We teach “storytelling” because non-profits and ad agencies and corporations need storytellers. We remind our students that being able to write concisely on deadline is a skill that many employers seek and not just newsrooms. Their web design and social media skills are also transferable. 

We’ve had to make certain anyone who teaches journalism has crack digital skills. Maybe a decade ago, you could get away with being the digitally illiterate professor in the cardigan if you had mad writing skills and stellar publication credentials or multiple Emmys. (I have nothing against cardigans. I keep a sweater in my office and laugh at myself everytime I wear it. ) But no more. Students, and rightfully so, simply do not want to learn from someone who cannot carry on a conversation about artificial intelligence and TikTok (the fastest growing platform for news.) This summer, as someone who oversees a photojournalism degree, I made certain to learn about photogrammetry and capturing in 3D.

Our academic institutions are slow to respond to changes in the industry. Academia itself doesn’t encourage experimentation. It demands that we be methodical and researched. It says it wants collaboration but allows individual departments to retain ownership of words and equipment and knowledge, which is the exact opposite of what is happening in the industry itself. 

We worry about the future of the journalism industry when we really need to be worried about our own future as journalism educators. 

This is not a moment to study where we should be headed. This is a moment to start walking, taking in as we go, responding as we need to, listening to the future readers and consumers of news in our classrooms, pivoting when we need to. We need to remind the leaders of our institutions of the importance of journalism, the role we play in our democracy. All of that matters. In fact, it matters now more than ever as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol showed.

This is also not a call to abandon copy editing and ethics and the inverted pyramid. I still teach objectivity. This is a call not to cling so tightly to the way we did things that we don’t help our students navigate a business in which many journalism professors themselves would have a hard time finding or staying employed. 

That is the truth.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

New democracy editor position at Associated Press should be model for all newsrooms

By Jackie Spinner

The Associated Press recently announced that it was creating a new position for a “democracy editor.” It tapped a long-time AP veteran and state government editor for the position. When Tom Verdin, who is in Sacramento, steps into the new role, he will oversee coverage of stories about voting rights and election processes. 

In making the decision, AP’s executive editor Julie Pace acknowledged that such topics were often covered by political and government journalists. “The challenge that a lot of news organizations are facing when it comes to covering democracy is that, yes, this is of course a national issue, a macro issue, but it’s playing out all across the country in very local ways,” Pace told CNN.

She pointed, in particular, to a standoff in a New Mexico over certifying local election results. One of the key figures in that dispute was a county commissioner who was just sentenced for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

AP’s move is a good one and should be replicated in every newsroom in America, including the smallest ones. 

Far too many of our readers, as evidenced by the support the Jan. 6 insurrectionists still have, do not seem to understand how government works and why threats to it undermine the core of our democratic principles.

Half of Americans (49%) said it was accurate to say that arresting those who entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to disrupt the certification of the presidential election violated the Constitution because they were exercising their constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. An equal number (49%) said the statement was inaccurate, and arresting those who entered the capitol did not violate the Constitution, according to the 2021 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.

It certainly doesn’t help when politicians themselves spread misinformation about how government works. Or when partisanship so taints the conversation that it becomes difficult to hear each other. That misinformation then leads to distrust.

A late 2021 poll by Pew Research found that just a quarter of Americans had faith in their government, a striking and near historic low.

We need a new approach.

In addition to covering local school boards and local elections, we owe it to our readers, and to ourselves as watchdogs of our democratic institutions, to explain better how the system works. In fact, we can and should do a better job of explaining to our readers what our role is in holding these institutions and processes accountable.

This doesn’t have to cost us money to add new staff to our newsrooms. We can follow the lead of the City Bureau in Chicago to deputize our readers to help us cover local government. 

The Documenters Network has trained more than 1,600 people across four cities to attend and annotate government meetings. Part of the training involves teaching people how to document objectively, without a partisan agenda.

With their mobile devices, our readers can help live stream public meetings, provide multimedia reports and take notes. It will give them a bigger stake and provide us with partners in holding government accountable.

In Detroit, a network participant reported recently from the Board of Water Commissioners on an affordability plan. Another provided coverage of a City Council meeting where a new tax abatement was debated. In Cleveland, a citizen tweeted from a school board meeting in which members unanimously approved a ban on guns in schools. 

With a slight reframing of our coverage and with new involvement from our civic-minded readers, we don’t have to wait for the national and bigger media outlets to find us when controversy erupts, as it did in New Mexico.

We need more “here is how it works” features, community forums, invitations to our readers, transparency.

We do not yet have the trust of the public back after the battering we took under the former president. One way we can rebuild that trust is by inviting people into the process, by taking away the mystery of how reporters do their jobs, how we cover government, how we watch.

Because the fact is that we are watching. We’ve always been watching.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Rethinking culture that encourages journalists to be ‘vultures’ when reporting on mass shooting

In the immediate aftermath of the killings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, journalists tried to piece together exactly what happened, talking to parents, teachers and young witnesses of the horrific violence that unfolded inside a 4th grade classroom.

It’s what we do as journalists, and unfortunately, many of us are experienced at it, no matter where we live. Every state in America has had at least one school shooting since 1970, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. The average for the years from 1970 to 2015 was just under 35 deaths or injuries a year. Since 2016, even with the pandemic shuttering schools, that average tripled to more than 112.

This particular tragedy at Robb Elementary School, which involved so many young victims–raised the question about whether we should be interviewing children, some who witnessed the deaths of their classmates. A gunman killed 19 children and two teachers May 24 at the Texas school, making it the second deadliest school shooting in a decade after 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012. 

Some have said it is wrong to put such young witnesses to tragedy on the spot by asking them to recount the horror of the day.

In one interview, a young boy whose parents allowed him to talk to a local CBS affiliate as long as he did not appear on camera or be identified by name, recounted that the gunman told children: “It’s time to die.”

He also said police asked children to call for help and when a classmate did, she was shot. 

Others questioned whether, even with consent from parents, reporters were not exploiting children at a vulnerable time.

Obviously it is important for reporters to be sensitive, particularly to young victims, to remember that the majority of the people we interview have no experience with talking to the media. We often come to people at their worst moments when many are in shock. We did it in Buffalo recently, too, when a gunman killed 10 people on May 14 in a neighborhood grocery store. It’s important not to badger or manipulate people into talking to us. 

But the fact is that people process tragedy differently and some, including young children, not only want but also need to talk about what happened as part of their grieving and healing process. 

The real problem isn’t that we interview young victims who want to talk. It’s the double-standard where we self-censor certain images and words when they happen in America and allow them if they occur overseas. I’ve seen and heard so many horrific stories from Ukraine in recent months and saw and heard horrific stories from Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq over the years, without the same objections to interviewing young victims of war.

The real problem is the chase. Our news organizations compete for exclusive interviews and to publish the most vivid and dramatic accounts first. Raise your hand if you ever had an editor chastise you because a competing organization had a detail or source you didn’t. Raise your hand if you’ve been that editor.

We tell ourselves this reporting is in the pursuit of public service. Already the official accounts of what happened in Uvalde have changed as witnesses told different stories to the media. The police have had to walk back their own accounts of how the gunman was able to enter the school and how long it took to stop him. Journalists will continue in the coming days, weeks and months to hold officials accountable for what happened, and they will do so because of the survivors who are willing to talk and tell first-hand what went on inside of the school.

But we also should continue to examine our motives and work more cooperatively on breaking news stories, to the extent that we can, so that we aren’t chasing the same survivor’s account or chasing the same people. 

Perhaps instead of focusing on whether we should be interviewing young victims, as some journalists have done in social media groups over the past few days, we should focus on the culture that encourages and rewards us for being vultures.

These young victims, with their parent’s permission, with kindness and respect, with compassion, have stories to tell, and it is our job to give them a place to tell them. We should take care not to trample them–or each other–to get to help tell them.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.