Of all the many dangers facing journalism, the greatest might be coming from within.
Yes, the cards are stacked against traditional news outlets both financially and technologically. And, yes, bad actors at many levels of government are actively trying to undermine the public’s trust in the media.
But perhaps even more troubling than all that, many news company owners appear to have ulterior motives — whether they’re focused solely on making money at the expense of solid reporting or pursuing a political agenda, said David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent.
“The danger is coming from inside the house,” Folkenflik told me. “It’s like a horror movie.”
In Pittsburgh, people have raised questions, he pointed out, about the impartiality of the Block family and its Pittsburgh Post-Gazette because of publisher John Block’s apparent friendliness with President Donald Trump. Block appeared in a photograph smiling with Trump aboard his jet during the 2016 election, and he later told Pittsburgh Quarterly that he had voted for the president.
“I understand why there’s some real tension there,” said Folkenflik, who also hosts NPR’s On Point news program. “Over time, the Post-Gazette will have to continue to show that it is a leading news organization that holds major institutions accountable.”
Folkenflik and I spoke as he plans to visit Pittsburgh on Jan. 15 to kick off the 2019 Media Innovators Speaker Series at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, which I run, is sponsoring the event along with WESA-FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR station.
Issues facing national news outlets get a lot of attention. But questions about local journalism raise the most concerns, Folkenflik said, because it’s not clear who will hold community leaders accountable if local journalists can’t — and who has a big enough platform to be heard.
The digital age has been celebrated for amplifying voices and allowing more niche news outlets to start up, but it also has undermined traditional outlets that no longer have as many resources for in-depth reporting and asking challenging questions.
As a result, local journalism might end up looking like a “crazy patchwork quilt” of different types of media outlets, experimenting with varying strategies to report news and information while attempting to make enough money to support their operations.
Then, the challenge becomes whether groups of smaller outlets can contribute enough serious reporting to be effective.
“In order for people and consumers of news to be able to be active citizens, they need the information on which to be able to make informed choices,” Folkenflik said. “That’s the fundamental mission of local news, and yet I think there’s a real question about that. In good-sized cities like Pittsburgh, that’s one of the real questions because the financial models are precarious.”
Objectivity also has taken a hit. It used to be that many serious journalists strove to appear impartial by presenting both sides of an issue evenly. That does not always work now.
Instead of seeking to be impartial or objective, most serious journalists now want to be seen as fair, Folkenflik said. That means reporting the facts with critical thinking, rather than simply presenting two sides of an issue.
“We want to be fair to the people we’re writing about or reporting on, we want to be fair to the people that affects, we want to be fair to our readers, and we especially want to be fair to the truth,” Folkenflik said.
On the topic of climate change, that might mean giving less time to people who deny climate change when the overwhelming majority of scientists say it is happening and manmade carbon emissions are driving it.
And when it comes to the president, it means reporting the facts along with Trump’s statements. Folkenflik talked about how national news outlets struggled Tuesday over whether to carry live coverage of Trump’s national address on border security when the president “seems to be almost unable to give a straight account of what’s he’s saying.” That speech is worth covering, Folkenflik said, but the coverage doesn’t have to be done in the same way as always.
Media outlets, above all, must be transparent. Some of the old rules about journalism can be bent, Folkenflik said, as long as journalists and news outlets are willing to speak clearly and openly about the ways they operate.
“I am open to the question of different models and different ways in which our values are translated into practices,” Folkenflik told me. “As long as we’re clear about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and transparent with our audiences about the facts of what we’re doing, you can do almost anything in journalism.”
Folkenflik plans to speak at the Pittsburgh Playhouse on Jan. 15. Find the details here.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.