President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media are having a “major effect” on how the public perceives journalism and journalists, even at the local level, a panel of experts said Wednesday night.
Trump’s “fake news” refrain loomed large at GLT’s Community Conversation about the state of local journalism hosted at Illinois State University’s Alumni Center. Around 120 people attended the discussion, moderated by GLT Program Director Mike McCurdy.
“It’s almost this perfect storm, where you’ve got fake news as a real issue, but the president is using that term loosely, throwing it at legitimate news organizations, and confusing a good many people,” said panelist Jim Kirk, an ISU alum and former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Times. “We are in an incredible period I don’t think we’ve seen before.”
Some local officeholders and residents are buying into the name-calling and viewing media institutions with less credibility than they used to, said panelist Charlie Schlenker, GLT’s news director.
“That also complicates how we do things,” Schlenker said. “Some of those people who have legitimate points of view and are thoughtful people are not as willing to talk reporters as they used to be, so their voices are left out, and the quality of the discourse is thinned.”
Watch video from the GLT Community Conversation:
Locally, Pantagraph editor Mark Pickering said his publication doesn’t get pushback on the divisive tone of reporting coming out of Washington. The main criticism they hear from local Trump supporters is that the paper’s syndicated opinion and editorial (non-news) content is biased against Trump, Pickering said.
“We try very hard to find a balance. We run certain columns—like George Will, who is not a fan of the president, but he’s traditionally considered a conservative. Trying to find syndicated material with an opinion that supports the president is very hard to find. There’s not a lot out there,” Pickering said.
This week YouTube, Apple and Facebook removed main outlets for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website, citing repeated violations of policies against hate speech and glorifying violence. Infowars responded by accusing the companies of censorship.
Kirk said he doesn’t support censorship, but he supported Silicon Valley’s moves against Jones and Infowars. Those who create or distribute content have a serious responsibility, Kirk said.
“That has to be done. I believe it will help all of us as journalists and news organizations,” Kirk said.
Anti-media sentiment is a concern, but equally concerning is a lack of resources—specifically not enough reporters to cover all the news—for media outlets in middle America, the panelists said. NPR reported Wednesday on how deep cuts have threatened The Denver Post's ability to cover its metro region of 2.9 million people.
Peoria-based TV stations used to send a two-person crew to cover most stories—one to shoot video, the other to interview and report. Now one reporter is doing both jobs, said Laura Trendle Polus, an educator at ISU’s TV-10 and president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association board.
Today’s journalists have too much to do, and they’re prone to burnout and mistakes as a result, Trendle Polus said. A single ISU intern recently filed eight stories for a Peoria TV station, she said.
“You are right to have some erosion of trust, because you can see it happening,” she said.
The Pantagraph’s newsroom has shrunk, and it no longer has bureaus in Pontiac or Lincoln, said Pickering.
“It’s a hard decision to send a reporter to Pontiac for a story now,” he said, referring to a half-day commitment to travel there, report the story, and come back.
Panelist Katherine Murphy, WJBC’s news director, said she too wants more reporters.
“Or maybe if I could just get the Normal school district and Bloomington school district to do their meetings on different nights. I have one person to cover both meetings,” she said. “For a medium-sized market, there’s a lot of news to cover here, and we just can’t be everywhere we need to be.”
Struggles at traditional media outlets have opened the door for new competitors, especially online. Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene, a Facebook page run by Larry Carius, is the go-to news source for local foodies. AdaptBN recently shut down after trying a new subscription model for online news. And blogs like Diane Benjamin’s BLN News continue to drive discussion, especially about local politics.
“You have to use every news source that’s out there and treat it as having potential for a story (for us),” said Pickering. “But don’t listen to the noise, or the comments.”
He added: “Sometimes they got something, and you should be on it.”
The entire discussion will be broadcast Aug. 13 on GLT’s Sound Ideas, marking the fifth anniversary of GLT’s flagship newsmagazine show. The show airs weekdays at noon and 6 p.m. on 89.1 FM and WGLT.org.
The GLT Community Conversation series is made possible by the Alice and Fannie Fell Trust at ISU.
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