(Editor’s note: This article is part of a series exploring media literacy and its many facets. This week, the internal operations of local media – and their role in maintaining democracy – are explained.)
Years ago, the city manager of Bell, California, earned a salary of $800,000, double that of the President of the United States.
Robert Rizzo was a central figure at Bell from the early 1990s until 2010, allowing enough time for Rizzo and his co-workers to continue giving themselves substantial raises. As many have pointed out, there was something about the conditions at Bell that led to fertile ground for exploitation.
“There were no checks and balances to check Mr. Rizzo and those in power in this city,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said in her ruling, per National Public Radio. .
This corruption started after the closure of local media Bell, which covered local affairs. Today, the Bell scandal is cited by media scholars as a prime example of what can go wrong in the absence of a community newspaper.
“From the beginning of this country and even before the founding of this country, the job of the press was to serve as the government’s watchdog,” said Gary Hicks, longtime journalist and professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “That way it works for us; it works for us in the same way as an official arm of the government.
Even in communities where local news outlets exist, conglomerates and financial firms can hamper that watchdog function, CBS 60 Minutes recently reported. Nearly a third of US daily newspapers are owned by hedge funds and other financial companies, according to the report.
With local outlets being controlled by outside financial interests, he continued, can lead to a higher priority being placed on maximizing revenue — not the civic value that news can lend.
“The investigative arms of local newspapers have just been decimated over the last decade because the big companies buying them up don’t see it making money,” Hicks said. “There’s very little local investigative reporting, and that’s the core of the watchdog function.”
the Republic Times is among two-thirds of newspapers in the United States that are not owned by a hedge fund or a major financial company. It is locally owned and operated and has been a community-supported newspaper serving Monroe County and surrounding areas since 1890.
“(The community) should understand how lucky they are and how quickly it can be taken away,” Hicks said.
While each newsroom may vary depending on who owns it and how it is funded, there are a few principles that Hicks said all should adhere to.
“The biggest tenant of the press is being honest and understanding who you serve — and that’s the public and democracy,” Hicks said.
As Illinois Media Literacy Coalition founders Michael Spikes and Yonty Friesem explained, journalists serve their communities – or should – by providing credible information that has been verified by sources and evidence in the most appropriate way. as objective as possible. This includes making sure they have no personal connection to the story and presenting multiple viewpoints.
In other words, providing accurate and unbiased information often involves covering events and topics that may not be well received by all members of the community.
Reporting events such as a protest in downtown Waterloo or reporting a lawsuit against a prominent member of the community can sometimes offend the sensibilities of readers – especially in smaller communities – but that’s no reason not to. not report newsworthy events or situations.
“Certainly one of the tenants who isn’t journalism, who isn’t press, is being shy and cowardly. That’s the antithesis,” Hicks said.
Another facet in which the press serves the community is providing a detailed account of how tax dollars are spent – whether by school boards, town councils, village councils, park districts, county councils and more, and how other entities are dedicated to serving they do.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the police blotting paper part.
“Communities fund (police and all law enforcement), so they have an obligation to work in the public interest. One of those obligations is to make it clear to the public, “Here’s what’s going on in your community,” Hicks said. “An extension of that, in a way, is the reporter’s responsibility to report on that, because most people don’t go there every day and ask to see the criminal record.”
Still, there are times when the press may choose to withhold parts of the truth, Hicks said.
“It’s really important to distinguish between what’s legal and what’s moral,” Hicks said. “Sometimes you want to tell the whole truth, and sometimes you say, ‘For the best of society, for the best of democracy, there are times when we don’t want to. “”
Those moments, Hicks said, often include reporters withholding full details when national security could be compromised, the names of sexual assault victims or minors involved in crimes.
“They’re not fully cognitively developed,” Hicks said of the latter. “The idea is ‘Here’s someone who really doesn’t have the mental capacity to weigh the consequences of their act, and how it’s going to be life changing not only for the victim, but also for themselves. Do we want someone who is 14 or 15 to be called a criminal for the rest of their life, or a murderer for the rest of their life, because of our coverage?
This is just one example of a process a journalist goes through every time they write an article: access control. Deciding what information is relevant or important to include in its coverage does not always involve such severe ethical considerations.
Each media outlet has its own set of standards and policies that guide journalists’ and editors’ vetting decisions, many of which are directly influenced by the needs of the community around them.
Not everything can fit in the print media, so journalists should prioritize the information they believe the community most needs to know.