Commissioned as part of a special series published in collaboration with Editorial Integrity in Public Media.
An intensely divisive national election and the victory of President-elect Donald Trump has prompted deep questions about the evolving role of journalism in American democracy.
Public media newsrooms face the challenges of strengthening their role as local watchdogs on behalf of their communities, addressing divided and partisan audiences and developing strategies for covering growing threats to fundamental human rights.
These three tasks will be trickier for the newsrooms serving communities that overwhelmingly supported Trump, or where the vote was close. It falls to leaders of all public media newsrooms to keep their eyes on all three at the same time, staying vigilant for any human rights encroachment that calls for extraordinary action.
This might be a federal registry for Muslims, regulations that siphon funding away from public schools or policies that create hardships for citizens exercising their right to vote. Or it could be a growing intolerance in your community that blossoms into blatant discrimination or hate crimes. The journalism you do will point you toward the moment. But when you get there, you will have a choice to make.
A great example was the recent NPR piece on the evolving influence of white nationalists in the Flathead Valley of Montana. The story explained the history and current expression of white separatism in the Northwest. It’s a solid step in the ongoing coverage of white separatism. But what’s next?
Montana Public Radio has been covering incidents involving white separatists for years. In the run-up to the November election, News Director Eric Whitney said that coverage was naturally influenced by the presidential campaign, like a story and a follow-up about a community’s reaction to two high school students displaying white-power sentiments on their shirts.
Whitney knows his newsroom has to cover issues of intolerance. But he faces steep opposition from his audience. Some people criticize the station for drawing too much attention to the racists’ voices. Others fault his editorial starting point that white separatist views are antithetical to the community’s values. The most common criticism by far is that stories of racism are out of proportion to their significance to the community.
That last one is fair, and tough to address, Whitney said. He has four reporters to cover the entire state, and a reporter working half-time covers the entire Flathead Valley, the northwest portion of Montana where many of the white separatists live.
But his news team does include a full-time web and social media editor, unusual for a station this size. The person in that position was key when a handful of kids recently paraded their cars and trucks through downtown Kalispell flying Confederate flags. That story generated massive interest on Facebook and a robust conversation that required vigilant moderation. It was worth it, Whitney said.
“At my core, I am optimistic based on what happened out of the Confederate flag story,” he said. “It was an opportunity for real dialogue. We were successful at getting people outside of our sphere to talk to people inside that sphere.”
I talked to a handful of public newsroom leaders across the nation who were refining their plans to deepen their reach in the communities they serve, and ensure a diversity of voices and stories would make up every day’s work.
These newsroom leaders seemed hopeful that over time that task alone would be the medicine that heals the deep divisions tearing America apart. History suggests otherwise. During past moments of deep disunion in the American story, particularly those revolving around race, journalism has done more than simply bear witness. Journalism leaders have called upon their communities to be better versions of themselves. This was true before the Civil War in the 1850s and ’60s, during the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and during the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
It’s possible that another such moment is upon us. And because of public media’s rise in prominence, its leaders will have to look for creative ways to address the moment.
In Boston, WBUR Managing Director of News and Programming Sam Fleming described a small existential moment that washed over his staff after the election. On one level: “It was like we got kicked in the gut. Does our journalism matter? Did we not talk to the right people? It seems like we sorta missed the story,” he said.
But on a deeper level the questions were even more difficult to address: “Who is the public radio audience? … Are we an echo chamber to an important group of listeners, but not the country at large? … Was our conversation too insular?”
Meanwhile, on the other end of the country, Tom Michael, general manager and acting news director at Boise State Public Radio, said his staff set to work changing its post-election game plan.
They had been planning to cover a rise in militias in response to a Clinton win. Instead, immediately after the election the news team prepared to report on a rise in intolerance, which they found on college campuses and among refugee and immigrant communities.
Coming to Boise from West Texas, Michael views the complexity of our country’s political divisions from a different vantage point than his colleagues concentrated on either coast. It’s not just liberal vs. conservative or Republican vs. Democrat. It’s urban vs. rural, those with higher education vs. those without, and those who embrace and celebrate cultural diversity vs. those who would prefer homogeneity. In the parts of the country he is most familiar with as a public media newsman, the challenge to his small newsroom became more clear on Election Day.
“Our red state got even redder,’’ he said. “Often the discussions I’ve had with people talking about political bias are really urban or rural issues. A lot of things that matter to the mid-Atlantic seaboard sound culturally to West Texan ears or Idaho ears as unusual.”
Just to the west, at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Morgan Holm, chief content officer, started working on a three-point plan to serve his light-blue but deeply divided state:
1. Work harder at listening to people and widen the diversity of voices on air, from immigrants to the people in the middle of the state affected by closing mills, fewer ranching jobs and changing federal land regulations.
2. Get more Oregon stories out on the national scene. “We have a microcosm of the rest of the country,” he said.
3. Have the courage and humility to be honest about where the newsroom should improve.
Montana Public Radio’s Whitney would add a fourth: Get local voices explaining their points of view on the air and add appropriate context when necessary. (He points to a story where citizens who oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees claim that Sharia is a possible outcome. “We have to add that that’s not going to happen.”)
That’s as good a start as any. Other leaders I talked to vowed to double down on the stories that public media do best. At KPCC in Los Angeles, Vice President for Content Melanie Sill told me, “You have to cover what’s happening, not what people fear is going to happen. We talked about documenting what is happening as opposed to rhetoric and prediction.”
This strategy of narrative and explanatory journalism is a critical first step, perhaps the only way to solidify existing credibility and expand the sphere of trust. The challenge is steeper for public newsrooms in red states and divided states, where public media is viewed as liberal.
Scott Finn, general manager at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, feels it. He describes his station’s relationship with its audience as “very tense.”
“They don’t know who we are. Once they find out, they are much more open,” he says. “When I go to a Rotary meeting and give a speech and people are really angry, I’m here and I can talk to them. But even in West Virginia I can’t talk to everyone. People seem very disenchanted on the left and the right. We defend ourselves. It’s not easy, I’ll be honest with you.”
In addition to telling stories about West Virginians, Finn, like Holm in Oregon, feels a deep obligation to push the strongest explanatory stories out to a national audience, to help the rest of the country understand West Virginia, a state that has seen a recent and dramatic acceleration in the loss of mining jobs.
He believes that when his newsroom’s stories expose injustice or intolerance, his audience will take action. “If we do a good enough job explaining what something is and how it will work and who is affected, I still have faith that people will figure it out for themselves,” Finn said. “We need to avoid adjectives and adverbs. It’s almost lazy for us to take a side, right off the bat. If we do that, we’re not doing our homework, not showing the details.”
I see a more nuanced and complicated challenge. Yes, take the critical first step. Ensure that your staff is devoted to finding untold stories and listening to the public. Tell the stories that will help the people in your audience see their reality reflected in their media and also understand each other. But know that great journalism leaders, during similar times, have gone much further.
Gene Patterson was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960–68. While the paper offered daily documentation of the struggle to achieve civil rights, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1967 commentary which frequently called upon his audience of white Southerners to atone for their own role in creating a bigoted society and to embrace tolerance and equality.
Over its 100-year history, the Pulitzer Prizes have encouraged and celebrated such leadership.
At a centennial celebration of Pulitzer Prizes awarded to social justice journalism earlier this year, keynote speaker Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) encouraged journalists to do more than just report the facts. When necessary, he told them, you must get in the way.
But what would this look like for public media? Newspapers have long had the editorial board and the columnist as an overt tool for suggesting action to the audience. Commercial television, too, has had the option of a general manager’s editorial, although it is used less often today than in the past. But public media has a more subtle range of options.
Panel discussion shows bring together wide-ranging opinions. Sill pointed to KPCC’s AirTalk as a shining example. Explanatory and investigative stories document and expose the impact of harmful policies.
Her newsroom has discussed how it will cover what could be major changes to things Californians value.
“We talked about documenting what is happening, as opposed to rhetoric and prediction,” she said. “Climate change, immigration, environmental policy — these are areas where our communities could be affected by policy changes, and we have to document that.”
As 2017 approaches, public media leaders may have more influence than those in any other category of journalism, by virtue of their mandate to connect to their communities and their association with a national network that shares stories. To be sure, calling out intolerance through your journalism or the guests on your air will yield zero results if that deep connection is not there in the first place. By strengthening that every day, with diverse and insightful voices and stories, you can beckon the audience to know itself better.
And if we’re lucky, that connection will be enough and the community will respond to our journalism by insisting that we live out our American values of tolerance and justice. But we may not be lucky. The community may not effectively push back against encroachments on equality and democracy. That will leave public media executives with a few choices. You can keep trying to inspire a response with more good journalism. You can consider that some issues merit a more creative approach.
Executives, from news directors to general managers, will have to identify that threshold and what their public media organization will do as the community approaches that moment. The journalism you do will point you toward those decisions. But when you come to that moment, you will have to determine what, if anything, you want your audience to do.
Most of these issues start out as political stories or coverage of public policy suggestions. Journalists begin by documenting the proposed changes, listing the pros and cons of the changes, and describing the likely impact.
By framing issues in a political context, where reasonable sides can take opposing views, your commitment to fairness and neutrality requires that you present both sides. But some of Trump’s campaign promises will raise human-rights issues if they are translated into policy proposals. More broadly, Trump’s election and appointment of Steve Bannon to his staff have emboldened the white-separatist movement.
If you see and describe issues as violations of human rights or civil rights, you find yourself with a moral compulsion to step into the role of civic leader and encourage certain action from your community. Public media leaders who avoid moving into this role run a couple of risks. The first is missing the opportune moment to make a difference. But the second risk is having your staff reframe the issue before you are ready for them to do that.
In my experience counseling newsroom leaders who’ve faced these dilemmas, I’ve found that making the shift, when appropriate, from a political conversation to a human-rights conversation takes a certain moral courage, whether you have to answer to a corporate board or a biannual pledge drive. I expect these occasions to arrive with more frequent regularity in the coming years.
This is public media’s moment to step into a new and expanded role in our communities across the country, communities that have felt left behind or kicked further down the hill by an uneven economy and shifting media landscape that seems to ignore their reality.
How will you know when to act? If you are connecting with your community, doing good journalism and listening closely, you’ll know. Gene Patterson, a man known for bold decisions, is a role model.
In his most famous column, after the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., he wrote:
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
He moved on to the Washington Post where, during the Pentagon Papers crisis, he was among the first editors to suggest that the Post must publish the documents, which the government sought to suppress. His obituary in that newspaper ended this way:
Mr. Patterson once told an interviewer that his column about the 1963 bombing was “the high point of my life.”
“It was,” he said, “the only time I was absolutely sure I was right.”
Kelly McBride is v.p. of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and one of the country’s leading experts on media ethics. With Tom Rosenstiel, she co-edited The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, and she frequently advises major news organizations on internal decisions.