New documentary about town of Morocco in Indiana tries to tell ‘honest’ story

A few years ago I started making documentary films, which has been a new experience for this longtime newspaper reporter, with one exception really. It also is not a lucrative pursuit.

I’ve done more than just traditional print over the years (decades). As a war correspondent in Iraq, I filed stories, photos and video from the field. I did online chats from the battlefield of Fallujah, with my portable satellite positioned just so in the dirt. Even though I’m not a digital native, like many Gen X-ers, I am completely comfortable crossing platforms and have done that over my career.

Moroccan filmmaker Khalid Allaoui films children drawing their idea of what the Indiana town looks like. (Photo by Jackie Spinner)

For me, a documentary is just a different way to tell a story. I still try to do it objectively and fairly.

My latest documentary, Morocco, Morocco, which airs on Chicago’s PBS station on May 5 and will also be available to watch on the website, is about the town of Morocco, Indiana. I spent nearly three years getting to know the people who lived there as we unraveled the mystery of how Morocco got its name. We also filmed in the kingdom of Morocco to connect the two places. It cost thousands of dollars to make, much of it raised through grants, including from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which also partners with Gateway Journalism Review. In the end, I almost wasn’t able to broadcast the film on PBS because I couldn’t afford the insurance required. (Pulitzer fortunately covered it.) 

The film started as a point of curiosity, which is basically the genesis of all good feature stories or investigations no matter the platform. How did this little town in Middle America come to be named after the kingdom of Morocco? I have three Moroccan-born sons, and my oldest two–the third joined our family during the pandemic–were puzzled when we visited for the first time in 2109. “Where are all the Moroccans?” my then 4-year-old asked as he jumped off a merry-go-round at the playground we have since visited numerous times. He couldn’t understand why this Morocco didn’t look like the Morocco he knew.

His question started me on a journey that was the basis for the short film. It was the ultimate reporting project in many ways. It also required me to do something I’ve always had to do as a journalist on these kinds of stories. I had to convince people to talk to me. Even though Morocco, Indiana, is not too far from Chicago, I was the big city filmmaker who arrived in town with a crew of strangers and cameras to ask questions, filming people at the bowling alley, at the farmer’s market, at the diner and at the Methodist church. Most everyone was incredibly gracious, including the town president who made introductions and really made it possible for us to film as much and as long as we did. 

As I talked to people, I made sure to point out that I also was Midwestern. The town has deep ties to the US veteran community, and some of our crew are combat veterans. That helped. 

We didn’t come with too many preconceived notions because so many of us are from places just like Morocco, Indiana. We explored and asked questions and found ourselves endeared by and to the characters we met. Some of them became friends.

I was surprised then by the reaction of one of the people we featured when I emailed him that the film was finally finished and would be shown on TV. “Ever regretted answering a phone call or responding to an email?” he replied. “I hope this is not one of these times.”

Though I was initially taken aback, it reminded me how vulnerable people are when journalists–or filmmakers–show up, especially with all the rhetoric in recent years about our intentions and our ability to tell honest stories. People hand us their history and their dreams for the future and have to trust that we will do right by them.

Of course, my job as a journalist or filmmaker is not to go out of my way to make people look good. That’s a different profession. The town officials will likely be disappointed that we dealt with some of the issues around race that people brought up, inevitable in a mostly white town in Middle America. Longtime residents shared the struggles the town has had with economic development, even as it has attracted new business. The town is far from dying. But we didn’t make a marketing film.

In the end, we told a good story, an honest story, and we had a good time doing it. That’s what matters to any journalist, no matter the platform.

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.

‘Financial hazing’ of new journalism hires ultimately hurts all of us

A journalism student about to graduate and enter the job market recently shared on social media that she was nervous about the low-pay for her first job, wages that would be less than working at a big box retailer or at a restaurant.

One of the veteran journalists in the social media group where she posted responded almost predictably with the same advice I was given decades ago when I was about ready to graduate from college: “This is about doing what you love and not about what you’re going to make. If you love what you’re doing, it won’t matter.”

Although it certainly varies by market and by the size and type of media outlet, the pay scale for journalists has always been comparatively low, still hovering around $25,000 as a starting salary in many places, either in print or broadcast. 

(Photo via Flickr)

The median annual wage for news analysts, reporters and journalists was $49,300 in May 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was still higher than the median for all workers, which was around $41,000. So we’re not the worst. Yay?

It’s almost a running joke on many websites focused on career and salary numbers. “Long story short, those who are skilled enough can make a living as a journalist,” according to Shmoop, an Arizona-based education technology company. “Some people get lucky, and some people work hard their entire lives to make ends meet. Others barely make enough to keep the internet on—and to a journalist that’s probably even more important than food.”

Our business model is broken, our newsrooms are shrinking or disappearing in many places and sectors–while growing in others, and because of that perhaps, we expect to attract and recruit young journalists to come work for the cause just like we did.

It reminds me of the one-uppance that my generation–Gen X–often displays in talking about millennials or Gen Z. We survived without seatbelts and helicopter parenting. We didn’t die from all of the hairspray fumes. We scraped by near the poverty line and emerged from it intact.

It’s a ritual financial hazing that has to stop.

We simply cannot expect or demand that the next generation of journalists come work for us at barely minimum wage, without at least offering other workplace incentives that help offset it. Of course workplace incentives don’t pay the rent. But we certainly cannot hope to attract the most qualified, diverse candidates on near poverty wages in toxic or unsupportive newsrooms, meaning our smallest new organizations will continue to be some of the least reflective of many of our communities.

We can be do better by the young people we hire, by listening to their safety concerns when we send them out along on assignment and by creating inclusive workplace cultures.

I get it. I know that financial reality of small community news organizations that are struggling to emerge from the pandemic with decreased advertising revenue. I get that we are competing for young viewers and readers who don’t want to pay because we gave our content away for free for so long that even their parents don’t understand that it costs to produce good, credible content.

Because of the labor shortage, we can’t find customer service representatives or carriers, and every small town publisher knows that nothing raises the ire of local readers like a late paper.

But local media outlets should not distance themselves from the reckoning over wages and work conditions even if we are not starved for employees.

Overall, the United States has more open jobs (11.3 million) than unemployed workers (6.3 million), according to the US Chamber of Commerce. 

That means if every unemployed person in the US found a job, the country would still have nearly 5 million positions without a worker.

The health care, hospitality and food sectors are having the hardest time attracting and retaining workers.

Some sectors like construction and mining have the opposite problem, more available workers than jobs. The news industry is in a similar position. 

There were more than 14,000 journalism degrees awarded at US colleges and universities in 2020. 

The Bureau of Labor Estimates projects 5,400 openings for news analysts, reporters, and journalists each year, on average, over the decade.

A few weeks ago an editor at a medium-sized newspaper in Ohio called me to check the reference of a former student of mine, a star student whose passion for journalism and accountability reporting, whose drive and work ethic is a model for other young journalists. 

The editor acknowledged that she likely wouldn’t remain with the news organization for long. She was ambitious, good at what she did and would be lured by higher paying jobs in a few years.

But in the meantime, he planned to offer her mentoring and careful editing. He planned to listen to her story ideas and encourage her. He wanted to make the newsroom a healthy place for this young woman.

It was an honest conversation, and it was a start.

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.

Local news outlets can help readers vet credible sources of information on invasion in Ukraine

This morning as soon as I woke up, I went immediately to search for news from Ukraine. It’s hard to imagine a more important, more devastating story gripping the world right now.

It is not a local story for much of America, yet, and its significance is undoubtedly greater to those of us who lived through the Cold War. I spent much of my childhood with the possibility of war with Russia, with nuclear bomb drills and fictional depictions on TV that didn’t seem far-fetched.

The top foreign policy story that consistently captivates many Americans these days is climate change, according to the latest Pew Research survey.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Steele via Flickr)

Russia still matters. It mattered enough to be a survey question for Pew, which asked respondents whether limiting the influence and power of Russia should be a top foreign policy priority of the US government; between 37 and 45 percent indicated it would, a spread that reflects whether they believed international cooperation was beneficial to solving the problem. 

It begs the question: what role, if any, do local news outlets have in even covering this story?

We are the referee in a news information battle, throwing flags when we need to and making the hard call after seeing the replay. People trust us, at least more than they trust national news.

We have an obligation to our readers to point them to credible news sources about Russia and Ukraine, even if we may not be covering the story ourselves. Russia’s propaganda machine is effective at influencing our readers. We know this well from the 2016 presidential election. At the smallest, most local levels, the Russians were there to steer our readers in one direction, to create dissent, to occupy the agenda. They’re already in our comment sections. Do our readers know how to spot a troll? 

This is the time to partner with a local public radio or TV outlet, to team up to promote news literacy on this story. Instead of simply interviewing the Russian and Eastern European experts at the community college or other educational institution, I would ask them to help explain to readers where readers can go to find more information, to find credible information. I’d share the Instagram names of Ukrainian photographers; they’re not hard to find. I’d provide links to English-language Ukrainian news outlets like the Kyiv Independent. Let people get news directly from the source if they don’t like our filter.

Even if our readers have grown tired after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, we can explain why this is different. For 77 years, international order has maintained that big countries don’t take smaller ones by force. Such an order has given us peace for decades even though it may not seem that way. 

Even with the civil wars and regional conflicts, that order has enabled global cooperation to bring people together to try to solve problems of climate change, refugees, terrorism and yes, even the pandemic. It has opened trade.

A world in which Russia can grab what it wants because of its size and military power is not a world that makes the lives of our readers better. In fact, it’s a world with deep economic costs. It’s a world that will make it harder to solve the local problems that vex us because we will be too distracted by the big ones. 

I personally do not want my children to grow up under the threat of nuclear war. I don’t want them to grow up in a world in which America’s power continues to be diminished, where big is better, where small is at risk. I don’t want our external threats to hog the attention; our internal ones, which the Jan. 6 insurrection showed, are also real.

But mostly, I don’t want our readers to turn away, and I know, after decades in the business, that they will if I don’t give them a reason not to.

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.

All news outlets should rethink field safety when sending reporters alone on assignment

A young TV reporter in West Virginia recently was struck by a vehicle while reporting on a water main break. The local NBC-affiliate where she worked never broke from the story, even as it was clear she had been run over. 

WSAZ-TV  stayed live as Tori Yorgey yelped and exclaimed, “I just got hit by a car.” Later, still hidden from view, her camera recording the dark, wet pavement, she declared, “That’s live TV for you.”

Yorgey was hailed for keeping her composure and bouncing back up to finish the report. Fortunately, she was not seriously injured.

But in the hours and days that followed, TV reporters, particularly women, lambasted an industry that heavily relies on multimedia journalists, reporters who serve as one-person crews for breaking news stories. Multimedia journalists are responsible for shooting, setting up stand-ups (and then getting in front of the camera to operate it remotely) to deliver the news without a photographer.

A solo journalist reports from a rally in downtown Charlottesville in 2012. (Photo by Bob Mical via Fllickr)

One TV reporter described on social media how her bosses routinely sent her to cover crime stories, with suspects still on the loose, and before the police were on the scene. Another was assaulted at an immigration rally. Her news directors brushed it off as “the risk of the job.”

GJR published an op-ed by Nikki Davidson, a former multimedia journalist, who called on TV stations to stop sending multimedia journalists out alone on assignments. And the National Press Photographers Association pressed for a “renewed focus on field safety.”

It would be easy for those of us in print journalism to write this off as a problem for TV news reporters. After all, TV crews, like photojournalists, are particularly vulnerable because of their gear. Writers can hide easier. We don’t show up with a camera, which can be provocative. 

But the fact is that media organizations, traditional print publications included, have long put female reporters in dicey situations without concern for their safety. For our part, many female journalists have gone along with it, myself included. Newsrooms like to perpetuate the image of a hardened, risk-taking reporter who doesn’t come back without a story. In a competitive industry, many reporters take risks to get ahead, something I observed as a war reporter overseas.

False bravado is outdated. We don’t have to make ourselves tougher than we are to gather accolades. We tell young reporters our stories of banging on doors in the middle of the night, of following people like it’s a rite of passage. And while I certainly stress the importance of shoe-leather reporting now as a journalism professor, I also remind my students of what Don Graham, my then-publisher at The Washington Post, told me before I went to Iraq for the first time: “No story is worth your life.” 

Not all publishers, editors or TV news editors send the same message, perhaps because the leadership at most media organizations are still dominated by men.

Women are in 40 percent of the leadership roles in America’s print and online newsrooms, according to the annual News Leaders Association survey.

While women of color have risen to top leadership roles in broadcast TV, with Kimberly Godwin now the president of ABC News and Rashida Jones the president of MSNBC, only a third of local news directors are women. The majority of women in TV work in local TV markets. 

Women journalists are more likely than their male counterparts to be targets of violence and online harassment. Solo reporting puts them at particular risk, and TV is not alone in sending one-person crews to cover the story, particularly as newsrooms staff shrink and the cost of covering stories increases.

The trend in solo reporting has drawn the attention of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which released tips in 2019 for journalists who have to cover potentially dangerous assignments on their own. Among them, CPJ encourages journalists not to drive alone to a remote area and to talk to managers about concerns. 

That is easier said than done. Women TV reporters tell stories of being rebuffed when bringing up their concerns. Or producers and directors not bothering to check in after they’ve been shot at, run off the road or assaulted. That is not acceptable, and as an industry, both men and women need to stand up against such callous disregard for the frontline multimedia journalists who are asked to go get the story. 

Smart reporters who use calculated risks to get a story and who exercise smart situational awareness should be awarded.

We should applaud when a reporter like Yorgey brushes herself off after an accident and keeps going. But we shouldn’t encourage the risk in the first place. 

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.

Local news outlets should do more to combat pandemic misinformation

A recent report tracking the public’s attitudes and experiences with COVID-19 vaccinations illustrates the extent of misinformation out there as we head into another long pandemic winter.

The Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor–a non-partisan source of health news—found that nearly eight in 10 of the people surveyed are unsure about at least one common falsehood about the disease or the vaccine.

The falsehoods include that the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths (not true), that the vaccine has been shown to cause infertility (not true), that you can get COVID from the vaccine (not true) and that the vaccine contains a microchip (not true.) 

Not surprisingly, unvaccinated adults have a lower trust in most news sources compared to vaccinated adults. 

Photo from Jernej Furman via Flickr

But there is a bright spot–if not a call to action, among the findings. Local TV journalism, specifically local TV news, is the most trusted media source for COVID-19 information. Of course that is tempered by the fact that this, like media consumption generally, is polarized. 

Vaccinated adults are at least twice as likely as unvaccinated adults to say they trust COVID-19 information from their local TV news station and network or cable news. 

The one news source that is trusted by a larger share of unvaccinated adults compared to vaccinated adults is Newsmax, a conservative news and opinion website. (Newsmax’s White House reporter recently claimed that vaccines contain “a bioluminescent marker called LUCIFERASE so that you can be tracked.” Emerald Robinson went on to tweet, “Read the last book of the New Testament to see how this ends.” 

Nearly two years into the pandemic, I find all of this distrust and misinformation demoralizing as a journalist. I no longer have the energy to engage in the debate–at least not outside of the classroom where I teach. It feels like an uphill battle trying to convince readers and new consumers of facts. 

Just as Omicron was starting its December surge, an acquaintance from high school challenged a Facebook post I shared from a group of doctors and nurses from Minnesota who were exhausted and overwhelmed. A week later, the original post from the health care workers had more than 4,000 shares and an equal number of comments.

Their message was simple: wear a mask, get vaccinated and test regularly. 

But it was lost on this acquaintance who has a well-stated beef against mainstream news and the media in general. He tried to engage me in a discussion about the root case of the issue, which was not the pandemic, but rather the state of healthcare in America. They are not mutually exclusive. But in fairness, and because contrary to his narrative about mainstream journalists, I will share his point: “The facts not common in the national media and narrative is that the attrition of nurses is partially due to weak management, stingy compensation, and heavy caseload,” he wrote.

He also took issue when I tried to counter that I had seen a fact-based report, which I have, that nursing and health care worker shortages are not due to vaccine mandates. A single report, he retorted. That’s the problem, he said. There have been more than one, but I frankly didn’t have time to offer a bibliography. 

But once again I was reminded of the need for local news outlets to counter the misinformation around COVID-19 and the vaccines, especially with our health care systems being ravaged again. 

We need more stories from our emergency rooms, more stories from the health care workers who live in our community, more stories from the doctors and scientists and experts who are our neighbors.

We have to keep countering these false claims and do it form our newsrooms. If our readers mistrust national news, the only way to combat it is with reporting of our own.

I get it. Our newsrooms are stretched. Our readers want local news in their local newspapers.

But COVID-19 remains a local story, especially if elective surgeries are getting canceled again, especially if our hospitals are running out of beds again, especially if our beleaguered health care systems are losing workers–not to vaccine mandates but to a host of issues that undoubtedly include some of the root problem my high school acquaintance raised.

We can’t be distracted. We can’t be deterred.

This pandemic is not going to end if people do not get vaccinated, if our communities do not collectively decide that we are more important than the individual. And while that may be unpopular, if some of our readers may not be convinced, no matter how many facts we deliver, that doesn’t mean we can afford to abandon our mission.

Our mission is to tell the truth even if nobody wants to hear it. 

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.