I didn’t get into journalism to be liked. But I didn’t get into it to be hated, either.
After the last four years of President Trump’s attacks on the media, his followers feel more emboldened than ever to direct hateful language and dangerous threats toward journalists trying to do their jobs.
That was on full display Jan. 6, when pro-Trump extremists who stormed the U.S. Capitol were photographed trashing journalists’ camera equipment and calling reporters, “enemies of the people,” as Trump has done throughout his presidency. Some reporters were physically assaulted. “Murder the Media” was scrawled on a Capitol door. All because journalists had the nerve to report that Trump lost the election and that there’s no evidence of enough voting irregularities to change that reality.
I understand why people don’t like reporters. They uncover scandal, reveal unflattering things that some would like to keep secret and ask uncomfortable questions – all things the media has done in abundance with this president.
In my two decades as a journalist, I wrote and edited scores of stories that made people mad. In my early years, I knew I touched a nerve when I’d get to work and see the voice mail light blinking on my desk phone. As technology changed, angry readers would vent to me in an email or to a wider audience on a comment board or social media.
When I talked to an aggrieved story subject or reader in person or on the phone, I’d approach the encounter calmly – never raising my voice, even if the other person did – and I’d rely on facts to guide the conversation. If the newspaper did make a mistake in the article, I’d own up to it, sincerely apologize and publicly correct the error.
Even if they weren’t completely satisfied with our conversation, I hope people came away knowing I sincerely listened to their concerns and our reason for reporting wasn’t done out of spite or a desire to embarrass to ruin a career. We just wanted to reveal truth we felt the public needed to know and do it in the most fair and accurate way we could.
Trump and social media have changed the rules of engagement between public and media.
With the president labeling reporters as “enemies” and “fake news,” and social media users mindlessly clicking “share” without checking facts, reporters are seeing dangerous levels of hostility, especially when they’re reporting on high-profile topics like COVID-19, racial justice and the election.
And the hostility isn’t only happening to national reporters at Trump rallies.
Over the summer, the organizer of a “Million Unmasked March” at the Illinois Capitol spit into the masked face of a member of the Statehouse press corps. Other local reporters have been mocked and heckled at similar events for wearing masks or merely carrying a camera.
Since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the FBI has issued alerts about more “armed protests” coming to all 50 state capitol buildings in the days leading up to Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. In Springfield, state workers last week boarded up the windows of the Capitol and Gov. J.B. Pritzker activated the Illinois National Guard to protect the building. As of this writing on Wednesday morning, everything has been quiet in heavily fortified downtown Springfield. Here’s hoping it remains that way.
The threats throughout the country prompted Reporters Without Borders to issue a statement last week that it is “gravely concerned for the safety of journalists in the U.S.” during this time and that it is “urging authorities to take every action to ensure the safety of members of the media covering such events.”
Poynter, a journalism education organization, published a column last week containing tips on how journalists can stay safe – both physically and mentally – when covering events like this week’s inauguration.
I’ll admit, I didn’t include any of this safety information in my Public Affairs Reporting coursework this past semester. But I have made it clear to my students – now serving in internships in the state Capitol press room – that their own well-being is more important than getting a story.
Now that Joe Biden is president and the National Guard troops will soon leave their posts at the U.S. and Illinois capitols, where do we go from here? What can the media do when so many people – including some elected leaders – won’t accept facts like who won an election and that masks help reduce the transmission of viruses?
Although it’s controversial, it’s vital that social media companies continue to step up their fact-checking operations to prevent bad information from circulating. That includes cutting off prolific peddlers of disinformation and misinformation. One analysis showed misinformation about the election fell 73 percent after Twitter, Facebook and other platforms shut down Trump’s accounts in the days following the siege at the U.S Capitol.
In addition, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently gathered ideas about how journalists can handle the false claims that the election was rigged, which unfortunately will linger even after Biden is sworn in as president. While the column centers on election misinformation, the advice translates to any conspiracy theory or fantasy that gets irresponsibly tossed around as fact.
She suggests reporters include specific details in every applicable story why the claims of a rigged election are false – not just simply saying the Trump’s tweets are wrong or Rudy Giuliani’s latest press conference contained several inaccuracies.
Another suggestion in Sullivan’s column is to move away from the usually sound journalistic advice of giving both sides an equal shake when one side insists on ignoring reality.
“[W]hen one side consistently engages in bad-faith falsehoods, it’s downright destructive to give them equal time,” she writes.
Sullivan quotes a recent tweet from NYU professor and press critic Jay Rosen, who suggested that journalists writing about the election need to begin interviews with a basic question: Who was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election?
“If the answer is ‘we need to investigate that’ or ‘President Trump,’ simply withdraw the (interview) opportunity,” Sullivan wrote.
I like that suggestion. But the column doesn’t directly address the reality that the “election-was-rigged” politician who is denied the chance to spout his views on a responsible news outlet will likely find a partisan, like-minded outlet masquerading as legitimate news that is more than willing to amplify his conspiracy theories.
To combat that, we all need to use our media literacy skills. If something you read or hear seems off, check it out to see what other media outlets are saying about it. Check the Interactive Media Bias Chart, my go-to site when I find a news source I don’t recognize and I want to determine how politically slanted and/or reliable it is. Check trusted fact-checking sites like snopes.com and politifact.com. And most of all, make an effort to break out of your media silo. If you’re a fan of conservative-leaning or liberal-leaning media outlets, that’s fine. But don’t fill your entire media diet with just one political point of view. See what the other side is saying and keep an open mind about it.
Jason Piscia is an assistant professor and director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield, who came to UIS following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register (SJ-R).
The views and opinions expressed on the Capitol Connection Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UIS.
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