The News Next Door

Apr 24, 2018

The plea came from a post-millennial student journalist in Connecticut. It came in the context of the hyper partisan bad-mouthing that’s been disparaging trust in the news media. 

And it came with a headline that called on one of public media’s veritable First Citizens not to forsake an important part of its mission just because the times are turbulent:

Dear NPR, Please Keep
Your Science Blog

“We are at a sort of crossroads in regards to science in our society. ... Anti-intellectualism is persistent in many areas,” Jacob Kowalski wrote for The Daily Campus at the University of Connecticut.

“NPR is one of the few places that can discuss scientific issues while avoiding legitimate accusations of pushing a political agenda,” Kowalski asserted.

“Regardless of whether scientific discussions from CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News are accurate or not, their very association with outlets regarded as partisan hurt[s] their credibility.”

Kowalski, the editor of the newspaper’s opinion section, is among those worried about the impact that today’s toxic mix of technological change, financial uncertainty and harsh political rhetoric could have on news in the broader public interest.

One related hot topic as of late is the decline of local news journalism because of a faltering business model affecting news organizations — whether commercial or non-profit; broadcast, online or print.

“The basic hypothesis is that the collapse of local media institutions has kind of broken the foundation of political engagement in our country, which historically began at the local level,” communications scholar Lee Shaker of Portland State University told Politico recently.

“With less local reporting, residents come to understand each other less well,” according to veteran journalists Charles Sennott and Steven Waldman, co-founders of a project to put hundreds more local journalists in the field over the next several years.

“Fellow citizens become caricatures rather than neighbors — and we become more polarized. People rely more on national sources, which tend to be ideologically driven,” they wrote.

“Just as all politics is local, all news that matters is ultimately local,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Strong newspapers put into local context issues that may seem to be national ones.”

Shaker’s civic hypothesis came in response to a Politico special report suggesting that President Trump won the election in part because weakened local media did not sufficiently hold him to account on national issues.

“The loss of local outlets, and the downsizing of others, has had a profound effect on the national dialogue,” the Politico report asserted.

That report was based heavily on newspaper readership and subscriptions, however, and newspapers generally trail television and the Internet as a prime news source for local consumers.

What’s more, fact checking national politics as implied in the report is not a priority for local media, noted Joshua Benton of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab.

“If this was a study about local congressional or legislative races, it might make sense to look at local media,” Benton wrote. “But the presidential race has been the dominant turf of national media literally for decades.”

Not that long ago, local newspapers could count on Washington correspondents to add hometown relevance to coverage of Congress, the White House and federal departments and agencies.

Immigration, job growth, taxes, health care and even agricultural and trade policies could have different impact from one state to another, or even among Congressional districts in a single state.

“What’s better than ‘a local stamp of approval’ on stories written by out-of-state strangers?” wrote Mollie Bryant, a former reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi.

Helaine Odom, an opinion blogger at The Washington Post, seemed to agree.

“Local journalists have long served as a validator of the news coming from Washington, New York and Los Angeles, but when local news doesn’t exist, they can’t play the role of trusted intermediary,” Odom wrote.

“When local news goes away, or is harder to access, people will only have online sources of information.”

Bryant didn’t necessarily consider that a bad situation.

“People don’t exist in a vacuum where local newspapers are their only option. We have a lot to choose from, and the healthy, nonpartisan stuff sometimes costs more than the partisan and hyperpartisan stuff. Breitbart [News], for instance, is totally free,” she wrote.

Most public media news outlets are local, and most local broadcasters depend—directly or indirectly, but usually heavily—on newspapers for considerable content.

That’s one cause for recent concern about Sinclair Broadcast Group, which already owns 173 stations nationwide and is hoping to add 42 more by acquiring Tribune Media.

“Stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations operating in the same market,” Emory University researchers reported recently.

“By replacing local coverage with pre-written national politics segments, which Sinclair distributes to all its affiliates, stations no longer have to devote resources to costly local reporting,” Gregory L. Martin and Joshua McCrain added. “From Sinclair’s point of view, then, cutting local coverage may make economic sense.”

Sinclair also has stoked controversy in news circles by requiring all its station managers to air video segments expressing the company’s views on national news. Local anchors often are featured in the segments, which are akin to televised editorials.

“By forcing anchors to recite commentary written by corporate bosses, Sinclair has tarnished its greatest asset: credibility in local communities,” Indira Lakshmanan, an ethics specialist at the Poynter journalism institute wrote earlier this month.

Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president for news, said he hoped the airing of corporate opinions would not interfere with independent judgments on the news.

“We stand for accurate reporting first and foremost,” Livingston told Lakshmanan in response to a letter of concern signed by 13 journalism school leaders.

“We value the connections our anchors have with their communities and trust that they will continue reporting local news for their viewers as only they know how to do,” Livingston said.

“The controversy surrounding Sinclair is about more than partisanship, media consolidation and government oversight,” Peter Vernon wrote in Columbia Journalism Review.

“It’s about the very manner in which the American public understands where their news comes from and how it’s made.”

And that brings it all back to Jacob Kowalski, The Daily Campus at U-Conn, and NPR’s “13-7: Cosmos and Culture” blog.

To a certain degree, well-informed civic engagement lies at the center of the Constitutional intersection of news, education and public information articulated by Thomas Jefferson.

His advocacy for freedom of the press is declared in an eloquent phrase (in italics below) frequently cited without the words that frame it.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

“That right” is the essential authority of the citizenry to check governmental abuses—even if at times, they err in doing it.   

“The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people, is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people,” Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington, Virginia’s representative to the Continental Congress.

Those “public papers” are the free press.

Blogs like “Cosmos and Culture,” perhaps unimagined in Jefferson’s time, help “to inspire a sense of wonder throughout ... many fields and topics,” Kowalski wrote.

“It is, I think, critical to our society that we highlight aspects of science that inspire ... wonder and fascination, and encourage people to seek new information and learn about the natural world.”

Congress echoed Jefferson’s words and sanctioned Kowalski’s concerns when it passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, declaring in part:

It is in the public interest for the Federal Government to ensure that all citizens of the United States have access to public telecommunications services through all appropriate available telecommunications distribution technologies.

The controversy over local news is emblematic of the educational challenge of news in the public interest. It is as much about science and public policy as it is about politics and money. And about civic responsibility, too.

“One thing that’s coming out of this is that we all say look, long-term the only way we’re going to be able to deal with the revolutionary change in the media and information is media literacy education,” says David Zurawik, television critic for The Baltimore Sun.

“We need to become more sophisticated about the information we consume,” Zurawik told Vernon of Columbia Journalism Review.

“It’s a chance for people to get involved, to be aware. We’re seeing a moment when local news is on the precipice,” NPR media critic David Folkenflik added.

“Is news going to be meaningful? Are news organizations going to be able to hold local institutions and local political figures accountable? Do they have the mission, the resources, the resolve to do that?

“This is a moment where consumers have to decide [which] institutions they want to support and how they want to support them.”