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A community newspaper editor’s successful effort to deal with anti-journalism sentiment

headshot of al crossInto the Issues
July 2017
By Al Cross, Director of the Institute for
Rural Journalism and Community Issues

In a challenging environment with fewer resources, greater vulnerabilities and increasing attacks from politicians and the politically motivated, how should news organizations respond? One editor-publisher’s approach — a calm, respectful but strong defense of journalism and its essential role in democracy — seems to work.

Brian Hunt, editor and publisher of the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin, circ. 16,000, gave a speech at the local library and boiled it down to a 2,400-word column in the May 7 edition, headlined “Community journalism in the era of fake news.” We excerpted it on The Rural Blog at bit.ly/2rxLqCi, and you can read the entire original at bit.ly/2sQtB5k.

Hunt begins by explaining that fake news “is as old as communication itself. What is newer historically are the advertiser-driven platforms and technologies that now enable information to accelerate and expand without regard to any formal vetting or verification.”

With technology and consumer data held by Google, Facebook and other advertising-driven platforms, “Truth matters less today than reach,” Hunt says. “The content that wraps around these ads doesn’t need to be true, it just needs to be able to entice us to click. And we really click, motivated in part by our very human desire to improve ourselves and to belong to something. . . . They know what persuades us as individuals and they can easily help us sort ourselves into very small groups of like-minded groups. What could go wrong?”

A tribal and divisive politics, for one thing. “I don’t want to paint social media as the enemy of truth,” Hunt says. “It’s not — though a business model focused exclusively on serving ads based on our likes does present challenges in terms of what is true and what is merely effective. We all gravitate to information that feels like it fits our perspective. It’s human nature. Fake news stories — like spam emails that preceded them — work because they can cheaply exploit known human behavior.”

Hunt gives a short history of journalism and explains, “As journalists, we are trained in critical thinking. In looking at all sides of an issue. In separating our personal feelings from the work of telling true and balanced stories that enable readers to make up their own mind. The rise of objective journalism had a dramatic impact on the news media – and in our world. The advent of the advertiser-funded internet particularly, and the scale at which broadcast news outlets proliferated and extended themselves, is a new wild west of information dissemination. So how do we navigate the vast amounts of information we encounter to ensure that what we read and what we share are true?”

Hunt recommends the “Stop, Search, Subscribe” motto of the News Media Alliance, formerly the Newspaper Association of America, but acknowledges, “What is true or false may not be as enticing as “our desire to believe in something shared.”

He gives examples: “The president of the United States declares the press the enemy of the people. In our valley, we drive by billboards that vilify our reporters and editors. Fake news accusations are now common for stories that don’t suit a particular audience, true or not. We’re increasingly intolerant about information we don’t like, for sides of the argument that disagree with our side. For community newspapers such as the U-B, this loss of collective understanding and tolerance threatens the very sense of a shared and diverse community.”

After Donald Trump was elected, “I began hearing from readers who seemed confused about what was published as a news story and what was published as a personal opinion column or an editorial — definitions that newspapers have relied on for decades are suddenly not widely understood,” Hunt says. “This became a small wave of complaints that national political coverage in the U-B did not match reader expectations — they knew things we didn’t include, and they often disbelieved what we did include.”

Hunt gives examples of the extreme without being judgmental: “I’ve been challenged on why we include people of color in our newspaper. I’ve heard from readers who question why, when two-thirds of our region voted for Trump, the U-B would ever publish anything remotely critical of his presidency. I learn things in these conversations. Most notably, the people I speak with are not unaccomplished, not unintelligent, not uncaring.  We know these people. You know these people. Fake news and the isolated intolerance that can feed it gets to us all.”

Such challenges to newspapers “threaten to eat away at the core of what makes us communities,” Hunt says. “Strong communities support good community newspapers, and strong community newspapers support good communities. That’s the best way I know to show how much we depend upon each other. How much benefit we can together achieve. For that, I hope you are all subscribers, that you encourage others to be subscribers. And that you continue to challenge us to be the best community newspaper we can be.”

So, how did Hunt’s column go over?

In an email to The Rural Blog, he said reaction “has, for the most part, been positive/understanding, with a fair amount of surprise around the idea that the bitterness and intolerance of our national politics does indeed have real local impact.” He also said, “I have to believe many rural papers are in the same boat.”

There is evidence the column had a positive impact, Hunt said: “a dramatic slow-down in complaints/stops based on the perception that we’re too liberal. Stories that are perceived to reflect on Trump as a person seem to generate the most outcry. The policy actions, health care debate, etc. have not.”

Hunt’s column indicates that he knows and respects his readers. He mentioned Trump, but he did it factually, and he avoided attacking any politician, faction or institution. He explained journalism’s role in democracy and community, and subscribers’ increasingly important role in the news business. Every newspaper’s audience is different, but Hunt provides a good example for other editors and publishers.

Al Cross edited and managed rural weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. See www.RuralJournalism.org.