In this issue of On, we talk about the ways we get information. The role of journalism and its role in our democracy are part of this discussion, as is the potential social media has for shaping online sharing.
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In this issue of On:
- Welcome: From the Director’s Desk
- Featured: Interview with Elizabeth McGowan
- In the Spotlight
The fate of American journalism and American democracy are very much on my mind these days. As you’ll read in this issue, the WHC is launching a new initiative, Beyond the Headlines, that will bring citizens and journalists together in 2018 to discuss pressing local issues, and the role of Wisconsin journalists in helping citizens address them.
Social media is challenging the role of journalism and its role in our democracy. It presents new risks and also new possibilities. We’re exploring those as well, through a partnership with the social media visionaries at Love Wisconsin.
And some thanks are in order: to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of Beyond the Headlines and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership, and to our statewide project partners who include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics, UW-Madison Life Sciences Communication, and Wisconsin Public Radio. And for your support of all we do, thanks to our donors, who make conversation possible across Wisconsin and now on the digital plane.
Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.
The need for a free and robust press is an American value with strong, deep roots. Even today, when more Americans express negative than positive views of the news media, 8 in 10 believe that the media have an important role to play in democracy, particularly in relation to informing citizens, according to a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey released in January.
The past decade’s decline, by more than a third, in the number of newspaper reporters and editors is a dramatic sign that not only public opinion, but American journalism itself is changing. More difficult to determine is the effect of these changes on democracy. What we can observe is that shrunken newsrooms are unable to offer the same breadth of information to readers that they once did. At the same time, digital platforms offer a vast array of information, the veracity of which can be difficult to judge. Only 27% of Americans are very confident that they can discern when a news source is reporting factual news as opposed to commentary or opinion, reports Gallup/Knight.
Here in Wisconsin, what is happening to our journalists and how are they responding to the changes that economics and technology have thrust upon them while pursuing their mission as the Fourth Estate? What can Wisconsin citizens do to stay well-informed on issues that matter to us?
This year, a new WHC initiative will bring citizens and journalists together to talk about pressing local issues. Through those conversations, citizens can probe how journalists in Wisconsin now work to provide the information that we want and need. In Madison, Wausau, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, and Superior, Beyond the Headlines events will dig into issues like policing, poverty, racism, and the future of our waters. To attend an event and learn more, you can visit the Beyond the Headlines website when it launches in April.
To kick off our conversation about journalism and democracy, we turned to Elizabeth McGowan, who began her reporting career at the Janesville Gazette. McGowan won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting in 2013 while with InsideClimate News, for stories on the regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or “dilbit”) which is a controversial form of oil. The stories began with a spill in Kalamazoo, MI.
What drew you to journalism and what has kept you reporting?
Listening was one of my strengths growing up and I wanted to pursue a career where I could use it to absorb and translate people’s insights and ideas.
Seeing the film The Post reminded me how the precious power of the press is not to be squandered. Although I was a child when stories broke about the Pentagon Papers, and then Watergate, those events made me gung-ho about seeking my own truths. “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” a motto I learned long ago in journalism school, is still so relevant today.
Yes, digital tools have created a 24/7 media, but I have continued to find that readers are hungry for well-told stories that require experienced reporters and editors to “commit” old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism.
No doubt I have to stay nimble to keep up with social media and other electronic tools. That’s why I am a big fan of intergenerational journalism. Younger journalists always want to learn how I do what I do, but I am even more interested in knowing how they pursue, organize and share their stories because it forces me to evolve and learn new methods.
Recently, I’ve connected with an organization called the Solutions Journalism Network founded by two New York Times reporters. SoJo, as it’s abbreviated, doesn’t entail writing articles about puppy dogs and rainbows. It requires the same rigorous standards that apply to any balanced reporting. Rather than dumping more problems on readers, however, this approach allows them to learn how communities and/or organizations are tackling daunting challenges.
Longtime readers of energy and environmental news have told me repeatedly that they now tune out many articles because the news is so grim.
That’s part of why it was inspiring for me to do SoJo on-the-ground reporting in Tonawanda, N.Y. The community next to Buffalo could have sung a “woe is us” chorus when its largest taxpayer, a coal-fired power plant, shut down.
Instead, teachers and labor unions combined forces with a tiny environmental justice group to lobby the state legislature for millions in temporary, first-in-the-nation “gap funds” so Tonawanda could cover its expenses while it expanded and reconfigured its industrial tax base. The joint effort was messy and hard, but ultimately rewarding—and a potential model for other cities as the nation burns less coal.
In the dilbit reporting, you use individuals’ stories to help tell a larger one. How do you gain sources’ trust?
I make it clear to potential sources that I don’t engage in “gotcha” journalism. If I lose my credibility, my career is over. Keys to gaining trust are showing up, really listening, not taking sides, and ensuring accuracy by double-checking everything instead of making assumptions.
I had some memorable experiences with sources doing the Kalamazoo story. Finding John La Forge in Marshall, MI, was crucial. He was golden. Not only did he introduce me to people up and down the river, but his voice was also crucial for the narrative, day-by-day arc my editor and I wanted to present to readers. The spill had interrupted John’s entire life, but once he understood what I was trying to do, he set aside time to go over and over –and over!—details.
Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum and I tangled all the time over details little and big, but he never stopped answering my questions. Never once did he say, “Why should I keep talking to a tiny start-up like InsideClimate News?”
Then, as now, Environmental Protection Agency officials were reluctant to talk with reporters and difficult to track down. When I thawed that ice with Mark Durno and Ralph Dollhopf, they became invaluable sources. After the stories were published I asked why they chose to answer my calls and emails. “We could tell how persistent you were about seeking the truth,” one said. “And we wanted it out there.”
Researching the dilbit story, you must have been presented with contradictory claims. What did you do?
Up until the day before InsideClimate News began publishing “The Dilbit Disaster,” Enbridge officials insisted that what their pipeline leaked into the Kalamazoo River was just heavy crude oil—and threatened legal action if we characterized it as anything else. This could not be explained away as a “he said, she said” sidebar argument because it was the crux of our series. Plus, as a tiny online outlet challenging an oil behemoth, we couldn’t afford to be wrong.
My charge wasn’t to prove Enbridge wrong; it was to find the truth for readers. That required reviewing outside technical data, studying the specifics of Material Safety Data Sheets and repeatedly interviewing local, state and federal scientists, industry experts and outside scientists.
Such research and verification made us 100 percent comfortable with all of our diluted bitumen conclusions. I like to think we added the word dilbit to the U.S. vocabulary. Enbridge continued to challenge our dilbit conclusion, but never took legal action.
What do you feel that citizens may not know about the media’s role in our democracy – or about the work of journalists — that you wish they did?
These days, a lot is lumped together as “media.” It’s difficult for citizens to find a signal amid all of the noise. And even if they can, the traditional boundaries between news and opinions are often very blurry. Newspapers clearly define that line, but that is more challenging now that the journalism umbrella has expanded.
In my mind, it’s criminal that news outlets in smaller towns and larger cities alike are shrinking or dying. They are the heartbeat of a democracy that can’t function without watchdogs and informed citizens. All communities need sustenance and depth beyond a headline service.
Four things I wish citizens knew are that legitimate journalists: follow a strict code of ethics because accuracy and credibility are paramount; don’t approach a story with a specific agenda but instead dig in to separate fact from fiction; are committed to inventing new funding models for solid reporting and editing as “mainstream or legacy” news outlets shrink or disappear; and are aware of and humbled by how much power they wield as the Fourth Estate.
Images: Elizabeth McGowan got her start as a reporter in Janesville. McGowan’s reporting took her to Arkansas, where she investigated the effects on residents of a spill from an oil pipeline that runs under a small residential neighborhood. In 2013, while with InsideClimate News, she won a Pulitzer Prize for stories on the regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines. Images from Shattered by Oil: Exxon Arkansas Spill and the People Left Behind, a documentary produced by InsideClimate News and This American Land.
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In the Spotlight:
Americans’ use of social media as a news source is growing. As of 2017, almost 45% of all Americans obtained at least some of their news on Facebook, the Pew Research Center tells us. Facebook’s role as a news distributor is itself a news story. In response to criticism of how news is prioritized to appear in Facebook users’ feeds, the company announced in January that it would let users rank the credibility of news sources.
Shifting responsibility for determining which news stories users see, from Facebook’s programmers to its users, may help the company’s image. But given that the deeply concerning, viral dissemination of false or inaccurate news depends upon users’ inability to judge which news sources are credible, this approach hardly seems to solve the problem. It could make it worse.
While there are legitimate questions about Facebook as a media company, its popularity as a place for personal sharing and connection speaks to its power. Good things can, and do, come of it. In this complex social media landscape, the WHC wondered if we could find a way to take advantage of Facebook’s strengths. Could we use it to instigate thoughtful conversations among strangers, informed by the humanities – the kind of discussions that people enjoy at WHC in-person events?
In January we started to find out, thanks to Love Wisconsin, a digital storytelling project focused primarily on Facebook. Two years ago, Jet Waller and Megan Monday, Love Wisconsin’s creators, began to seek out and interview Wisconsinites of different ages and backgrounds, from all corners of the state. They produce beautiful, compelling first-person narratives that are shared with hundreds of thousands of people. Now, in a new partnership with Love Wisconsin, the WHC is testing a way to use a social media platform to strengthen our statewide community, and our democracy.
As well-crafted as the stories are, it is who the stories are reaching that excites us most about Love Wisconsin as a potential place for rich conversation. Their fans are remarkably diverse — especially politically. Even as Facebook’s algorithms prioritize posts that reinforce people’s existing beliefs and keep users safely among the like-minded, Love Wisconsin is successfully attracting people with different perspectives.
To find out whether this cross-section of Wisconsinites can engage in meaningful virtual conversation, Love Wisconsin Conversations launched in late January with WHC support. Fans are invited to join the Love Wisconsin Conversations Facebook group, a separate, moderated space devoted to discussion of Love Wisconsin stories that are selected for their diversity and qualities that make them good subjects for discussion.
Upon launching, more than 300 people joined the group right away and quickly began thoughtfully and respectfully discussing the first personal story. We hope you will join the group too, and see what is happening. Let’s find out if listening and sharing stories online (with some humanities expertise sprinkled in) can bring lovers of Wisconsin together around stories to cross some of our most seemingly intractable divides.
Reporters Mark Johnson and Kathleen Gallagher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wanted to write a story worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. In 2011 they succeeded, with a team of journalists who produced a series of stories about the extraordinary efforts of doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin to use genetic sequencing to save the life of a 4-year-old boy.
As a WHC ShopTalk presenter for the past two years, Mark has traveled around the state, sharing how he unraveled a complex medical story and made it intelligible for the public. He also talks with audiences about what it means to be a journalist.
“We had some good discussions about the craft of reporting: how journalist do what they do; the ethical questions they grapple with; the absolute need to get the story right and to write it clearly…”Johnson told us. “All of the talks I went to evolved into wonderful, energizing discussions that I was reluctant to leave.”
To find out about ShopTalk events around the state, check the WHC’s online calendar. Or invite a presenter to your community! We offer dozens of talks, like Johnson’s, that spark discussion about work today – from women’s working lives to the art of workmanship, and more. Invite a ShopTalk presenter to your community today!
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