In These Uncertain Times, Public Media Should Stand Up for Truth and Democracy
Public media has known for a while that our polite, cautious journalism is not meeting the needs and preferences of the public we serve. We’ve tried to change, and have had some success, but our overall approach remains largely the same.
Our moment of reckoning has arrived. This election has forced open a myriad questions about who we are as a country, and what we want for our future. Even the “we” is in question. Our newsrooms are straddling the fault lines, being asked by our public to do more than just inform. We are being asked to dig, interpret, validate, censure, bear witness, and above all, be brave.
Misplaced fairness and an overabundance of caution will make us soothing guides on the road to autocracy.
Now, there’s more at stake than changing audience demographics. The President-elect is crossing political, social, and moral lines without apparent consequence, leaving confusion and fear in his wake. It’s time for fundamental change in our journalism and our relationship with our audiences.
How should public media conduct journalism in the age of Donald Trump? What follows is a framework for considering that question in earnest.
We’re hearing that word a lot these days, and with good reason. Our audiences are concerned that we are too quick to normalize what is abnormal. I share their concern. Our inexorable news cycle, our production habits, and aged models of neutral-sounding reporting are no match for what has arrived.
Even if you are inclined to believe that journalism simply reflects a society’s norms, these times must surely call that into question: Which norms? And what happens when emerging norms collide with basic human and democratic values?
Just before the election, NPR’s Michael Oreskes called on public media to “introduce Americans from different backgrounds and points of view to each other” and to “start showing up in communities where we haven’t been much seen in recent years.” Great ideas that we’ve been discussing for years. Now, it’s time to sound the alarm on a major shift in our politics and culture.
Longtime public media fans are frustrated with our coverage. Our own newsrooms are worried, too. One colleague said to me, in despair: “What is journalism even supposed to be now? We reported the facts, but they didn’t matter.” A station reporter emailed:
“I’m feeling pressure here to push on like DT’s election is not very out of the ordinary, and to wait and see and react, rather than doing the kind of reporting I feel might be more responsible if less common and riskier… My sense is if I push too hard… I’ll get a reputation for being a flaming liberal who can’t be objective… I really wish I had some ethical guidelines for pitching stories under Trump.”
Public media newsrooms need to know where they stand on basic democratic and moral values.
- Where will your newsroom draw the line on what is acceptable?
- How will you cover ideas and language that fall on either side of those lines? What might you choose not to cover at all?
- What is your process for adjusting those lines?
- How will you communicate these lines to your staff and audience?
Draw your lines before they’ve been crossed, so you’re prepared to uphold them deliberately and with courage (it will take courage).
Thanks to this 2012 On The Media interview on acceptable, controversial, and deviant public discourse for inspiring this entire framework.
I know that important conversations are already happening. Great thought pieces are being published every day. Great public media reporting is already happening. Please, share everything here. I would like this framework to inform and advance an ongoing conversation. It is long, but I’m told that one way to “save America from tyranny” is to “spend more time with long articles.”
Norms Under Strain
Plenty of experienced and knowledgeable people are warning that our free and open democracy is in danger. Masha Gessen, a Russian and American journalist who spent much of her career in Putin’s Russia, said on Trumpcast:
“I think we need some sort of pact… and by we, I mean… those of us who are shocked and outraged and are not… arguing ‘let’s give the guy a chance’ and ‘let’s keep an open mind’. I think the pact needs to be something like, let’s take stock of what we have, the current normal, and resist the imposition of a new normal… If we take stock of what we are protecting and have a common understanding of… what we fear being destroyed, then the outrage can be constructive.”
Then I hear this exchange on the NPR Politics podcast, between NPR reporters Sam Sanders, David Folkenflik, and Scott Horsley. This entire excerpt is worth a listen to truly grasp the intense ambivalence on display.
The three seem at times to call for strong journalism. But at 2:47, Folkenflik says:
“We have to be open to the idea that Donald Trump surprises us with both his competence, his insight, his ability to unify, and his inspiration to get the country together and moving in one direction fruitfully, and, at the same time, I think that you can’t wait for that to occur. This is a moment at which the press has got to be on high alert.”
I’m taking Gessen’s advice: “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.” Trump will not surprise us in a good way. He has told us what kind of president he will be, and is showing us what his administration will be. Values will be transgressed, lines crossed, and in the process, norms will start to shift. That’s not always a bad thing, as I’m sure civil rights activists will agree. But in this case, we have every reason to believe it will not be in the interests of democracy.
To know where to draw lines, it helps to identify the kinds of norms most under strain:
- Civility and Hate. As hate enters mainstream politics, it is by necessity entering our coverage, and getting a voice on our valued platforms. It’s disorienting and troubling to find it lionized by mainstream media and getting key political appointments. Don’t give a white supremacist a platform and assume your listeners hear what you hear. Make the connections to violence and discrimination explicit.
- Democracy and Autocracy. If you agree that journalism and democracy are essential to each other, and that democracy is worth protecting, then there’s a line to draw. If something is anti-democratic or unconstitutional, call it out.
- Ethics and Corruption. It’s not normal that someone with so much legal and ethical baggage is about to become President of the United States. It’s disturbing and requires great vigilance. How will you cover alleged or convicted criminality by President Trump? Our government and civic institutions rely on personal integrity. How will your newsroom cover acts that are unethical or inappropriate even if no law or moral principle has been violated?
- Facts and Lies. Public media should be proud of our fidelity to facts and our constant reach for truth. But we must recognize that everything around facts and truth — context, volume, language — matter at least as much, if not more. Which brings us to how to monitor the lines we’ve drawn.
Once a newsroom team has a shared sense of what is acceptable and normal, and what is not, how do we handle each? We have many people to turn to — our own journalists (please share!), journalists outside public media, those who have covered earlier times in U.S. history, and those in other countries.
Not normalizing means:
Not sounding neutral when a line is crossed. When Trump calls on Russia to expose Hillary Clinton’s emails, or suggests “Second Amendment people” could do something if Clinton was elected, don’t just report it. Say how unprecedented and unacceptable it is, and why. I was intrigued by how Al Letson, host of Reveal, responded directly to a false Trump tweet.
Headlines matter. Headlines are tweets for people who don’t use Twitter. They’re what people read. When a misogynist and white supremacist is appointed to a key White House position, say so in the headline. “Trump Taps Reince Priebus As Chief Of Staff, Steve Bannon As Chief Strategist” is too timid. When the President-elect tweets, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” and the Wall Street Journal forgets journalism, look to Slate, People, and even Teen Vogue.
Watching proportion and emphasis. A group of ideological racists appears to be getting some sway in the White House. We have to cover that, but carefully. Also, it’s clear by now that Trump’s tweets need special handling. David Folkenflik has a creative idea near the end of this Here and Now interview.
Not providing “balanced” coverage to ideas and positions that fall outside the lines you’ve drawn. Hate is a good example. It is tempting to conflate the political and moral when an openly sexist and racist person like Trump is elected president. A public media organization that does not want to appear *politically* biased might hesitate to condemn the hate he has expressed and encouraged. Please, don’t hesitate. Hate is not a valid political position and does not require a politically balanced approach to reporting. A less extreme but more common example comes from a station reporter, via email: “Is it ethical to let a man-on-street say, ‘illegals are stealing our jobs’ without actually fact-checking that and calling it out when they are wrong?”
Watching language. “So-called” does nothing to negate the propagandic power of what follows. I was a producer at NPR when we used “so-called Shock and Awe”, and I cringed every time. What’s even worse? “Alt-right” with no “so-called”. Big props to KUOW for its powerful, fact-based stand on this (and for how they communicated it to their audience).
If you’re covering something that falls outside your newsroom’s lines of acceptability, go with the honest word. Do you really mean “surprised,” or something stronger? And why not use “lie” or “false” when it clearly applies?
Also beware of dog whistles — unacceptable discourse in disguise. How can you learn what they are? Will you leave them in but flag them to your audience? Or edit them out entirely?
Breaking format and tone. Yes, the sun will rise, and Morning Edition will come on your local NPR station, bringing brief, pre-recorded segments and dulcet tones. But your audience isn’t sleeping well. How might your newsroom connect more authentically with the myriad emotions people are feeling in times of change? Can you break open your regularly scheduled programming longer and more often? Can you open the mic to reporters and listeners? Particularly when a line is crossed (e.g. a hate crime, an ethics violation, a lawsuit), can you allow your reporters an emotional response in tone or words? Can you remove the advertising preroll from the podcast episode that begins: “Hey y’all, it’s the NPR Politics podcast, and Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States.” If we can’t connect with our listeners’ emotions, we risk irrelevance.
Disrupting your production process. In this time of lies and fake news, we have to be extremely careful who we let on our air. If you’ve booked a two-way at noon for air at 3, is there enough time to vet the guest and fact-check what they say? Can you pull the entire thing if it doesn’t meet your standards? Call-in shows face a particular challenge on this front.
Setting the agenda. We must fight our tendency to let newsmakers and other news organizations set the agenda. Too often we conflate “what people are talking about” with “what the media are talking about”. Too often we turn down strong story pitches until they have appeared in other publications. Our listeners can tell. Now, more than ever, is the time for enterprise reporting and for original and incisive analysis.
Doing the best you can with what you’ve got. Most of our newsrooms are small and not equipped to monitor every domain that comes under threat. But they can focus on the issues that best serve their states and regions. For example, as federal support for civil rights is under question, what laws does your state have in place to protect them?
Stepping back regularly. Aircheck all the time. Review your online presence. Are the mix of stories, the proportion, the headlines, the tone adding up to coverage that honors the lines you’ve worked hard to draw?
I keep thinking back to grade-school Social Studies, when my teacher asked, “Can a democracy vote itself out of democracy?” We didn’t really answer, we just hoped it would never happen, and that the grownups would make sure.
We are the grownups. And, as an NPR veteran wrote on Facebook, “These really are unprecedented times.” Such times require principled journalism and vigilance. Public media should see ourselves as a part of civil society, not just distanced observers. Misplaced fairness and an overabundance of caution will make us soothing guides on the road to autocracy. It will also make us irrelevant. We might lose listeners but we will gain them, too. Together, if we are all doing our part, public media can serve our public by serving democracy, which is what we’re here for. I believe we can come out of this process even stronger and more indispensable than when we went in.
Rekha Murthy is an independent strategist with nearly 20 years of experience in public radio, podcasting, and digital media. She got her start at NPR’s All Things Considered, and was most recently head of distribution at PRX. Follow her on Twitter.
Special thanks to Graham Griffith, Jacki Lyden, Josh Stearns, and Anna Solomon, and the following public media colleagues: John Barth, Sam Fleming, Robin Lubbock, Torey Malatia, Phillip Martin, Doug Mitchell, Tonya Mosley, and Marco Werman.
Originally published at mediashift.org on December 1, 2016.