Local media need to fact-check gas stories that are full of hot air

Perhaps you’ve seen the sticker on a gas pump. Or maybe you saw a photograph on social media. The sticker is a cartoon of President Joe Biden with the words “I did that!” It is positioned so he is pointing at the gas price.

Biden is not responsible for rising consumer gas prices, but the theory is nonetheless being widely shared in conversation and on social media, particularly in conservative circles. When gas prices went up under President Trump–and they did, the first year he was in office, he was blamed, too. Likewise, when gas prices dropped under President Obama, he got credit he didn’t deserve.

Photo by Tyra Ingram

We love to talk gas in America, even when our theories are full of hot air.

But the fact is that while administrative policies could eventually impact gasoline prices over the long-term, presidents have limited ability to impact gas prices short-term. Joe Biden is not the reason the national retail price for gas is at its highest level since 2104 heading into the start of the holiday season. The reason is textbook economics.

Gas prices are about supply and demand. Demand was down during the pandemic. As more people are getting vaccinated and COVID-19 infections are holding steady, or at least not spiking to the levels they were a year ago, demand is up again. We are traveling more. We are driving to work. We are filling our tanks with gas. Prices have gone up because demand is up. US oil production and refineries have not kept up.

It’s not just in the US, there are shortages across the globe. Gas prices are also high in Britain, France, Spain, Italy and Greece. Biden isn’t being blamed for the increases there; Russia is.

It’s easy enough to find stories in national media outlets that explain all of this. Forbes. USA Today. ABC News. These stories all detail the economics of gas. But it’s hard to get that message through the polarized din, especially when political leaders themselves falsely blame or credit each other when consumer prices rise or fall.

There is a role for community news in helping our readers navigate this story, and I don’t know why more local news outlets aren’t fact-checking the rumors at the pump. I’ve said this before, and I will say it again. We cannot leave the fact-checking of major stories to the national news outlets that our readers either aren’t paying attention to or are dismissing as “big media.” 

Many of us are not big media. We are little media, and while we still have to deal with the allegations of “false news” and eroding faith in journalism itself, we are still much better positioned to counter claims like this one. We need to do a better job of speaking frankly to our readers on these topics. Will some people dismiss us? Of course. Like many of you, I have people in my life who would ignore a fact if I smothered it with cheese and served it on a plate even without garnish. 

We need to be careful and precise with our explanation so that we show our readers we are not coming from any particular political point of view. This isn’t about Biden. This is about the economics of gas. This is why gas prices are higher. This is why your local diner is out of styrofoam to-go containers. This is why there is a run on canned pumpkin. Or why the LOL Surprise OMG House is in short supply, which incidentally I know because I listen to NPR’s Marketwatch. 

But why can’t we tell our readers as well? Even if we have long axed the business page or buried it inside the sports section, our readers are talking about gas prices and pie and hard-to-find toys. We have an obligation to explain the reason, free of political conspiracy theories, which unfortunately are not in short supply. 

As long as that holds true, we are also in demand. That is textbook journalism.

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.

It’s getting hard and harder to find a newspaper for sale

Late last month, my son and I were photographed outside of Columbia College Chicago for a story about my employer’s new policy limiting children on campus

The Chicago Tribune photographer captured him in a wrap on my back, his blue Vans untied and a floral mask covering his face. It was my baby’s first newspaper photo. 

I’m just old school enough that after I saw the story online (and after I shared it on social media) that I decided I should get a copy of the print edition for the scrapbook I will put together for him one of these years, probably after he’s gone to college.

Photo by Shannon Kokoska via Flickr

I am not a print subscriber to the Tribune. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I currently do not get a single print newspaper subscription delivered to my home. I have stacks of New Yorkers that I don’t have time to read and library books at my bedside that have been there for weeks, automatically renewing without me opening them.

I am a working parent of three little boys, and my days of being able to sit with the Sunday newspaper and read it over coffee are behind me, for now. I’m busy in the morning getting my children ready for school, frantically answering emails and trying to plan my day so I’m most likely to scan the headlines online and flag stories I want to read later in the day. I still pay for and consume journalism through a number of digital subscriptions. But I consume almost all of my news online right now.

Nonetheless, I wanted my son to have a copy of the picture, something to save, to yellow eventually. So I stopped at a convenience store to buy the paper. Sorry, the clerk told me. They don’t sell the paper. I tried another store. And another. And then another. I must have searched a half-dozen stores within a one-block radius of my north side Chicago home looking for a print copy of the paper. 

Once again I went on a search, trying gas stations, more convenience stores and even several coffee shops. I finally find a copy at the grocery store.

The last time I had to look this hard for a newspaper was when I was living in Oman in the Middle East. It was the fall of 2011, and Arab Spring protests had broken out in the sleepy sultanate. I had seen piles of newspapers, untouched, in the stores for weeks before the protests began. They rarely carried actual news and certainly not news that challenged the government. But after the protests started in Oman, the newspaper publishers became emboldened and started carrying actual news. It was suddenly difficult to find a newspaper and not because the government was confiscating them. People were actually buying them because they had information that was valuable.

The only other time I’ve not been able to find a paper in Chicago was in 2016 when the Cubs won the World Series. I was at The Washington Post when Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first Black president and was able to get my souvenir copies in the newsroom.

There was nothing particular about the Wednesday my son’s photograph ran in the Chicago Tribune.

I ultimately posted on our neighborhood Facebook page to see if anyone with a print subscription could give me the paper for that day. A couple of neighbors responded, and I picked up my copy the next morning. But the story wasn’t there. It ran a few days later on the front page, which I found out about when a neighbor texted me a picture that his mother-in-law had taken and sent.

I had a different relationship with The Washington Post when I lived in DC undoubtedly because I worked there. But the Post also prided–and sold itself at the time, as a local newspaper with a national reputation. 

I’ve had a harder time feeling connected to Chicago’s largest daily. The Tribune does some incredible journalism, and I have much respect for its reporters and editors, some of whom were colleagues of mine at our student newspaper in college. But the paper has never really felt like a hometown newspaper, not in the way that a newspaper should.

It strikes me that this disconnect I feel is one that others can relate to; we mostly consume our news online in a format that feels impersonal even when our clicks generate personalized ads. (The latest Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year found that more than eight of 10 Americans read their news online.)

We know our readers, our future is digital because it already is. We know our neighbors are more likely to read us online than in print. 

But I also think if we want to keep or regain the public’s faith in what we do, if we want to be relevant to younger and younger audiences, we have to find a way to reclaim that hometown feel that newspapers used to have, that idea, however fleeting it now seems, that we were connected.

It’s hard to feel connected when you can’t even find the paper.

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.

Former war reporter steps back into familiar role in helping Afghans evacuate

I was still a relatively young reporter in The Washington Post newsroom when the US launched its longest war in history following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I came of age as a journalist in the 20 years that followed, becoming part of a generation of reporters who ended up on a battlefield, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

Even as I turned my reporting attention elsewhere in recent years, trading my flak jacket and helmet for the life of mom and journalism professor, the stories I told from both places stayed with me like a discarded notebook I kept finding in the bottom of a drawer, with a few empty pages that I had skipped as I filled it with my messy shorthand.

In the weeks, then days and then hours before the US withdrew its last troops and diplomats from Afghanistan at the end of August, I found myself entrenched again in the story, volunteering with Allied Airlift 21–started by a friend and retired Army commander, in a desperate attempt to get the last Americans and our allies out before the Taliban solidified its power grip on the country.

The author on deadline in the middle of the battle of Fallujah in Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Spinner)

There are still thousands of people left behind, people who served alongside the US military, diplomatic and humanitarian mission in Afghanistan and who were promised a chance to escape the threats that now follow them because of their service, including former translators for the US military who are eligible for special immigrant visas. In spite of what the State Department still claims, there also are hundreds of US passport and green card holders with immediate family members who are trapped in Afghanistan unable to get on a flight to flee. I know this because I’ve seen their pleas, helped verify their documents, talked to their family members in America. This notion that people who want to leave have been able to leave is pure fiction.

It might seem like an unusual coda for a former war correspondent to be partnered with US veterans from the global war on terror in an effort dubbed “digital Dunkirk,” named after the World War II effort to evacuate British and other Allied forces from France. But for me, it was like stepping back into a familiar room that very few Americans have ever seen. It was comforting in a way. Less than 1 percent of the US population served in the conflicts that followed 9/11. During World War II, that number was 12 percent.

It is hard to measure the ways in which these last 20 years have shaped that small percentage of us. Over time the good and the bad have mingled into one experience, like a death of a loved one that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, the pleasant memories almost like a longing, overshadowing the painful parts. I mostly have channeled this now into teaching about war and advising our student veterans on campus. 

For me, the end of the 20-year war coincided with a small family vacation I had planned for my children, a vacation that will now be remembered as the one “mom spent on Slack.” In between bike rides and trips to the beach, I was collecting passports and GPS coordinates. One day, I hope my kids will understand why their mom, a civilian who went to war to collect stories, went back at the end–albeit from the privilege of distance–because it was a way to settle the score of all the stories she had taken, without seemingly giving anything in return. 

It was an extraordinary and intense few weeks as we worked mostly through digital channels to evacuate vulnerable Afghans, using Google maps to lead them around Taliban checkpoints, guiding them to gates at the Kabul Airport where we thought they had the best chance of getting in, listening to the gunfire and shouts, the desperation and exhaustion of people trying to flee.

I realized how valuable my skills as a war correspondent were in those moments, that ability to stay steely-focused on what was in front of me, to go without sleep, to record identification numbers on manifests without making a mistake. I also knew well enough when it was over–although I am still engaged with Allied Aircraft on a smaller scale, to show up each week for the mental health check-ins the organization offered, a hard lesson learned from 20 years of war and my own battles with PTSD.

To some extent, I am back where I was halfway through America’s longest war, when I was trying to heal but also make sense of what had happened, when I was trying to put into words what it meant to go to war and to survive. Survival is both a gift and a burden, something I am reminded of when I hear the pleas of Afghan-Americans whose families haven’t yet made it out. I hear it in the weariness of refugees starting over.

For them, the story hasn’t ended, which means our job, my job, isn’t done yet.

That, too, is a comfort after 20 years of war.

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 media have role in fighting vaccine hesitancy, misinformation

A few days ago I shared an op-ed on my personal Facebook page by a doctor in Los Angeles who wrote that she was running out of compassion for the people unwilling to get the COVID vaccine.

Photo by Province of British Columbia’s photostream via Flickr

“Last year, a case like this would have flattened me,” the doctor wrote of a man who had refused to be vaccinated and was now dying. “I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was. This year, I struggled to find sympathy. It was August 2021, not 2020. The vaccine had been widely available for months in the U.S., free to anyone who wanted it, even offered in drugstores and supermarkets. Cutting-edge, revolutionary, mind-blowing, lifesaving vaccines were available where people shopped for groceries, and they still didn’t want them.”

I have a variety of Facebook friends from different parts of my life, including from my childhood in Central Illinois, a more conservative part of the state than where I live now in Chicago.

Nonetheless the post drew support, from a childhood acquaintance from church who is now a doctor and a friend of my mother’s who has two daughters working in health care.

The last comment on the post came from an old high school acquaintance whose life in the past decades I know little about. I can see from his Facebook page that he has grandchildren about the age of my children. (I am an older mom.) I assume he still lives where we grew up, but I don’t know for certain. He disagreed with the doctor’s op-ed, even though he acknowledged he had been vaccinated because of concerns for a sick family member. “Otherwise, nope would not get it and that would be my ‘FREEDOM’ and ‘CHOICE’ not to,” he wrote. “I would like to see real data that is true fact and not the politically pushed agenda #s.” 

He got one “like” and one “heart” in support (the heart was from my unvaccinated brother), but no one argued back with him. 

I didn’t respond either, but I did reach out privately to ask about his news diet and to find out why he could not find the data he was missing about vaccines. Granted, I consume more news than most people, but I have seen plenty of research about vaccines presented in a pretty straight-forward manner from a variety of different news sites. How could he have missed this? 

Even if he didn’t ultimately agree with the findings, because in a post-fact world we have the freedom and choice to do that, surely he had seen reports of the numerous vaccine effectiveness studies and the growing body of evidence that the vaccines reduce the risk of COVID-19, including severe illness, among people who are fully vaccinated by 90 percent or more. 

Certainly, there are plenty of people who think that numbers lie, but hospitals undoubtedly are full again with COVID-19 patients, in nearly every part of the country. 

My message was polite. “I’m wondering if your local news outlets (not talking about FOX, CNN, etc.) have printed stories with non-political data or if you would trust your local news outlets if they did provide information. In other words, which source would you trust? I am genuinely curious and hope you and your family remain well.”

He wrote back immediately.

“I am so frustrated with the far left and right news media trying to push agendas that only fit their narratives,” he told me. “It seems like you only watch and read opinion shows and the facts have been left behind. I am sorry to give this to you straight but journalism seems to be fading behind these radical agendas that push their so-called truth only.”

He said he liked podcasts. “We don’t have cable, and I listen to podcasts but my brain filters out some of it because it is hearsay.”

He then wished me well and asked me to “fight the good fight for truth only.” 

In return, I acknowledged that it was important for journalists to refrain from giving their opinion even if we have them. But I assured him that the vast majority of the news media are modestly paid journalists working for local media who try to be objective. The difficulty is that people want news that supports what they already believe and not really to get information. 

It is a challenge for readers and viewers and a challenge for journalists.

I shared the link to a science-based Nature podcast I liked and also recommended that he listen to NPR, telling him that “public radio has managed to stay very in the middle on news stories.”

Yes, he told me, he liked NPR. Then he went on to share that a neighbor worked at the local hospital and had told him that the virus was hitting younger people much harder this time. “I am sure the vaccine helps, but there are groups that will not get it no matter what.” 

Our exchange was useful for me in trying to understand what local media can do to help disseminate accurate information about vaccine efficacy. 

If you haven’t started a podcast yet, start one. Attach a microphone to your editor’s computer and have them start talking about the news stories that your publication covers. People are listening.

Seek out the nurses, doctors and healthcare workers in your community and have them tell their stories. If you’ve already done it, do it again. Invite them to talk your editor on their podcast.

My high school acquaintance rejected the account of a doctor in Los Angeles but listened to his neighbor who works at the local hospital. 

Publish the numbers of hospitalized COVID patients at your local hospital. Keep the story on the front page.

We are at a crossroads in America yet again, grappling with a virus that is stealing lives and time just as our children return to school.

When we cover contentious school board meetings where people may be fighting over mask mandates, we can certainly present a variety of opinions but we are not obliged to present a variety of facts. 

The false equivalency has to stop.

A family member recently told me that she had no plans to get vaccinated because there was “information on both sides.”

This is not true. There is just information, and we owe it to our readers and to our communities to keep presenting it fairly and factually.

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.

Working moms push for flexibility to remain as newsrooms open again

Like many journalists in the early months of the pandemic, Susie An was mostly working from home. Draped in a blanket, her radio equipment propped on a big box of diapers, the education reporter at WBEZ in Chicago voiced her news stories and features from a closet. With schools and daycares closed, her days were hectic working from home with her sons, ages 7 and 3. “My children are quite loud and, shall we say, creative with their play,” she said. “There were times when I was on an interview and my husband was in a meeting. That’s when our children broke a lot of things, made big messes or got hurt.”

Photos courtesy of Susie An
WBEZ reporter Susie An works from home with her two young sons during the pandemic.

In Atlanta, Cynthia DuBose, the managing editor for audience engagement at McClatchy, had to jump from her own work video calls to helping her daughters log into their virtual classrooms for school. “I remember in those first weeks, waking early, working, getting the girls up and busy, working until 6, cooking dinner, spending family time, having bedtime and working again from 8 until I fell asleep,” said DuBose, whose daughters are 6 and 9.

Meanwhile, Bethany Erickson, the digital editor for People Newspapers in Dallas, found herself working later and later to account for the breaks she took during the workday to help her 10-year-old son with his fourth grade math, which, she noted, is nothing like the math she did in fourth grade. 

“I’m always just at that edge of kind of tired and actually exhausted,” Erickson said.

For many working moms in journalism, the past year of juggling job responsibilities and parenting–often in the same shared space, was one of their toughest, even if it also produced unexpected gifts like reclaiming time from long commutes, earlier dinner times with their families and just being around more.

Erickson’s son, who is autistic, started pitching stories after watching his mom work from home. “We worked in the same room a lot, and he got to see what steps go into writing a news story,” she said. He started asking questions and has even written a story and two op-eds for our papers this year. I don’t know that he would have been as interested in improving his writing if we hadn’t had this time together.”

Women make up nearly half of the total workforce in media and entertainment, although most of them are concentrated in entry-level positions, according to a 2020 report by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. The pandemic disproportionately affected them, especially if they were also raising children or doing it as a single parent. After all, if you don’t have childcare, it’s hard to drop everything to cover breaking news, and the news didn’t let up last year.

“I felt caught between doing a good job and being a good parent, but failing most days at both,” said An, who also fills in as an news anchor and talk show host at the public radio station. “I do credit my editor with having understanding of the situation and trying not to assign me quick turn news items in the mornings. That was helpful.”

Working dads didn’t escape the additional stresses of the pandemic. More worked from home and either shared or shouldered childcare or household responsibilities during the peak of the stay-at-home orders when nobody, except the most essential of essential workers, were going anywhere. There was a significant shift in parenting roles and involvement for many dads, including journalists. But the fact is that gender inequality remains, both in the workplace and in the home, and working mothers are more likely to scale back their careers or reduce their hours to care for children even outside of a pandemic. One study last year found that the gender inequity worsened, particularly for working mothers of school-age or younger children.

Across the globe, women worried about managing additional responsibilities while at home, a lack of childcare and the potential threat of losing income or jobs.  And it wasn’t just the pandemic, with its historic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. It was the summer of racial reckoning and the protests that swept the world after George Floyd was murdered by a Minnesota police officer. It was the US presidential election. 

“I shared with a friend the other day that I am still in shock about 2020,” DuBose said. “It’s almost like I’m in a twilight zone. I lost family and friends, watched in disbelief as part of my beloved Atlanta burned, watched again in disbelief as a man was killed about 30 miles from our home at a Wendy’s parking lot and lived through my Georgia becoming ground zero for an election like none other. And that’s just news.”

Mira Lowe, president of the nonprofit Journalism and Women’s Symposium, said women journalists on the frontlines of covering the pandemic and the social unrest of last summer had to contend with keeping themselves safe while in the field and their loved ones safe when returning home. “Self-care was also a stretch for women juggling the demands of the job and family while working remotely,” she said. “Many of us worked more hours while at home.”

She said one of the biggest challenges for women in journalism, particularly freelancers and entrepreneurs, was loss of income. “For many, writing assignments evaporated and contracts were put on hold,” said Lowe, who is also director of the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida.  “Public speaking engagements were cancelled. Book promotions ceased. In some cases, spouses and partners also lost jobs.”

S. Mitra Kalita, a veteran media executive and columnist for Fortune magazine, said the fact that decent health coverage remains anchored to full-time work is a massive roadblock to balance, innovation and flexibility for working moms. “You might say you can turn to Obamacare or the exchange,” she said. “Except that the process of researching, switching and advocating is a whole ‘nother job.”

Women also are often caring for aging parents, not just their children. When the pandemic began, Kallita moved between her parents’ place in New Jersey and her family’s home in Queens. “My father had a second stroke right before lockdown, and I was terrified of him being in a hospital or rehab. So we brought him home,” said Kalita, whose daughters are 9 and 16.

“My parents are in the process of selling their house right now,” she said. “Navigating the property tax breaks for seniors, necessary smoke-alarm inspection before closing and even just asking why their latest prescriptions did not qualify for reimbursement is a massive part of my life and time. I don’t need help from employers with this though. Rather, I think we need to collectively fight to make processes simpler, equitable and accessible. Think of how much invisible labor women like us pour into this.”

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 circulating and children under 12 still ineligible for the vaccine, it’s hard to talk about post-pandemic life in the present. It may yet be months off. But one thing is almost certain. “The pandemic has shown us we can work remotely,” Lowe said. “And so, I think the remote workforce is here to stay. Companies should find ways to embrace it and adapt benefits to support it. Consider flex schedules and policies that allow for a better integration of work and life responsibilities. Continue to incorporate virtual meetings into workflows so that everyone can be included. Focus on self-care strategies, and providing mental health and wellness resources. Invest in virtual and onsite skills-based training to help employees keep their skills sharp. Build online communities or interest groups, i.e. for working mothers, to fuel connection and support.”

Kalita, who left her job as a senior vice president at CNN Digital at the end of 2020 to launch her own media business, said the media industry needs a shift in work cultures toward moms and caregivers. “We will often say someone didn’t want to apply for the bigger job or stay with an organization because of their kids,” said Kalita, who co-founded Epicenter-NYC, a community journalism movement, and URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news outlets. “Instead, we need to be asking how we – as organizations – can better support them to help them ascend or be retained. It puts the commitment to keeping talent on work culture versus trying to shoehorn old methods into new realities.”

DuBose, who worked from home before the pandemic, said she definitely learned that she needs to prioritize self-care, which includes delegating, blocking her calendar and taking a real lunch. “Without it, I’m not sure how I would have survived.”

She also said what 2020 did for race conversations cannot be downplayed. “The events allow me to now have very real conversations with some of my white friends (allies) that I probably would not have before. I know that some events really divided our country but I also believe that for those of us who see the value in listening to gain understanding, 2020 was a game changer.”

Both An, in Illinois, and Erickson, in Texas, plan to continue working remotely part of the time this fall when their children are back in school or daycare. It will be easier, of course, when they are alone at home working.

“Both of my children have been receiving virtual therapy, but will likely do in-person visits starting in the near future,” An said. “I hope there will be good balance and understanding as we transition into that. Also, I hope schools will keep doing the virtual teacher parent conferences. Pre-pandemic, that was nearly 2 hours out of my day for a 15 minute meeting.”

Erickson also was able to negotiate a hybrid schedule starting in August, where she will be in the office three- to four- days a week and working from home one day a week. “My husband was able to negotiate the same, which means we’ll only need to nail down after school care for two-three days a week,” she said.

Kristen Graham, who covers Philadelphia schools for the Inquirer, said she can’t imagine going back to the newsroom full-time again, certainly not eight hours a day, five days a week like she used to. (The Inquirer newsroom is still closed, but employees may return as early as September.)

“Selfishly, I’d love to go back,” she said. “I liked having eight hours where I was just working. But I can’t imagine going back just because I feel that I need more flexibility in my day. I was trying to fit in too much in non-work hours.”

Graham, whose sons are 8 and 5, plans to work from home several days a week. “I’ve found that I’m surprisingly productive when I have my kid at tennis practice, and I’m writing in the car.”

Her editors are both working parents and have not pressured her about returning to the newsroom, she said. “Being a working parent is hard,” Graham said. “Having some flexibility makes it easier.”