JOURNALISM: Our society needs it now more than ever

I must have been like fresh meat to the crusty old city councilman who was accustomed to intimidating young reporters.

Looking me calmly in the eye and speaking with dramatic effect for everyone else in the room, he did what politicians often do when their candid comments land in the newspaper with a thud. He lied.

Today, we call that “walking back” a remark. It made an impression on me as a young newsman, because it was the first time (but it certainly would not be the last) that I was burned by a source. That was 36 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that episode not because of the art form lying has become but because of the way it has been weaponized.

Recent polls put public trust in journalism at historic lows. A recent poll by Morning Consult, a nonpartisan research firm, suggested that more people trust the fact-challenged president than the reporters who cover him. “Fake news” entered the lexicon last winter as a way of characterizing preposterous stories. It now applies to any story or news organization with whom the president disagrees.

This assault on journalism is not new, of course. But it is much more harrowing than Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” or Barack Obama’s pursuit of whistle-blowers.

Go online today, and storied institutions whose reporting is carefully sourced, reported and edited are forced to compete head-to-head with clever bloggers who have nothing to lose.

As my friend, Alex, who works at The Washington Post, humorously (and ruefully) puts it, “I’m just a technician in a click factory.”

The implications are staggering. If clicks are more important than facts, we’re in grave danger.

Let me bring this home for you. The owners of your hometown newspaper, the Daily Reporter, recently erected a big sign in front of its building at the corner of State Street and New Road. It is advertising office space for rent. No, the Daily Reporter isn’t shutting down, as I reassured someone the other day. But it is trying to lease unused space created by deep cutbacks that have long plagued the newspaper industry.

Of course, this crisis predates the president’s Twitter account. But I worry about the continuing erosion of public trust in the important work journalists do. This is vital when it comes to Russian meddling in the election or the firing of the FBI director. But it’s just as important here at home.

Robust, careful reporting shines vital light on issues few Facebook commenters care to try to emulate. (That takes a lot of work, after all.) Just consider local reporting from one recent week’s worth of headlines:

A McCordsville man was arrested on charges of child neglect less than a month after prosecutors dropped similar charges in an unrelated incident involving the same child.

The Southern Hancock School Board, responding to growing enrollment, voted to re-open the shuttered “old” Doe Creek Middle School and spend at least $2.5 million to renovate it.

The number of at-risk children whose welfare is being overseen by the courts is growing so quickly that the organization that trains volunteer advocates can’t find enough of them to represent children’s interests in court cases.

Without professionals paying close attention to what goes on in our communities, we wouldn’t be able to take measure of an expensive school board vote or a prosecutor’s decision-making. And we would not have heard an important appeal for court-appointed special advocates.

This is just from four editions of the Daily Reporter. The list could go on forever.

Is journalism perfect? Not by a long shot. Journalists are not infallible. But they all want to get at the truth. Sometimes, they die or go to jail in their pursuit of it. So far this year, eight journalists worldwide have been killed while reporting on stories, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 250 were imprisoned in 2016. They deserve our support. Here are a few ideas:

This will sound self-serving in this space, but subscribe to at least one newspaper. If you care about your neighborhood at all, that newspaper should be the Daily Reporter. Other news outlets parachute in only for the big stories. The Daily Reporter’s staff is here every day. If you have a copy of the print edition, take it to work. Share it.

Take stock of your social media “news” feed. Identify which outlets have agendas (Breitbart, InfoWars, Think Progress) and which ones can be trusted (newspapers, mostly, but also the major television networks). Think of social media as a supplement to your news diet, not as the main course.

Recognize that the vast majority of cable network “news” programming is actually thinly disguised commentary. Chris Matthews is not a journalist. Neither is Sean Hannity. They are commentators whose goal is to boost ratings, not understanding.

Engage in some intellectual hygiene. Challenge your own assumptions. Keep an open mind. Be skeptical, but not cynical. Write letters to the editor, and know the difference between news stories and “op-ed” columns. If you have children, instill these values in them as well.

A lot of people have been braying about “taking back” our country and making it great again. Regardless of where you stand on that spectrum, we should be able to agree on one thing: we can’t have a sensible conversation on the topic without some clear-eyed understanding. Let’s champion those who pursue that value. Not demonize them.

David Hill retired as editor of the Daily Reporter in 2014. He is host of “NineStar Newsroom” on the NineStar Connect cable system. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.