It’s time for journalists to stand up

By Caitlin Kelly

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Columbia Journalism School

Some of you are fellow journalists.

Some of you follow the news closely and know that President Elect Donald Trump makes a habit of naming, shaming and blaming reporters he thinks have somehow insulted him, often by merely challenging him on his ever-shifting statements and tweets.

At his first press conference in six months, which penned hundreds of journalists into the lobby of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, Trump was typically belligerent and bullying.

Here’s CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta threatened with expulsion from the conference.

Even worse — and frankly, this is so bizarre I’ve never seen it in  40 years of working in news journalism — his minions jeered at reporters.

From the Times:

A Greek chorus of sorts — mostly Trump supporters and aides, including Ms. Manigault — watched from the side, applauding Mr. Trump and jeering questions from reporters they deemed unpleasant.

Here’s the New York Times‘ media reporter:

“That” was Donald J. Trump’s inaugural news conference as a duly elected United States president-to-be, in which he called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage,” dismissed CNN as “fake news” and more or less told the whole lot of reporters at Trump Tower to stuff it when it comes to his unreleased tax returns because everyday Americans don’t care and, anyway, “I won.”

There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.

2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.

It better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.

The problem is multi-faceted.

Some of the issues journalists now face in covering Trump:

Many Americans don’t trust the MSM, mainstream media.

— Many Americans are gulping down “fake news” with no idea who’s lying to them and making bank from it.

—Many Americans loathe journalists and think that challenging those in authority — whether elected officials or the wealthy — is rude and disrespectful.

— In an era of a 24/7 news cycle, journalists are racing to be first, not always correct.

— In an era of unprecedented secrecy and obfuscation, (we have not yet seen Trump’s tax returns — and how long exactly does an audit take?), transparency and accountability are more essential than ever for voters to know what the hell is going on.

— The President-elect is hiring his own family as senior advisors, none of whom, like him, have any prior political experience. Also unpredecented. And why should any of us trust them? We didn’t vote for them, nor do they need to be confirmed through Senate hearings.

— Journalists have traditionally been respectful of the office of the President, but never before in recent history has there been a President who attacks the media almost daily, often singling out specific reporters, (like NBC’s Katy Tur) by name. That can lead to social media death threats and doxing.

— Journalists are working in an industry in deep turmoil financially, feeling economically vulnerable at the very moment we need them to be utterly fierce in their reporting.

— Without determined, consistent, aggressive reporting on every conceivable conflict of interest, voters, no matter who they chose (or didn’t vote at all), will have no idea what Trump and his kakistocracy are up to. Trying to intimidate us only invites doubling down.

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Count on that!

7 ways to consume media critically

By Caitlin Kelly

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”

That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.

Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.

To speak truth to power.

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One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…

In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.

You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.

I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.

Seven ways to consume media critically:

1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.

If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.

2. Get off social media!

If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

3. Think like a reporter (and take my webinar to help you do so!)

That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”

4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.

Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?

Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.

Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.

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We’re not robots. Use your brain!

5. Assume nothing.

Question everything.

Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?

6. Talk back to the media!

Not simply on a comments page.

Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

7. Know what’s happening in the media industry.

There are many places to follow news of what’s happening in the media world, from Columbia Journalism Review, Poynter Institute and Neiman Reports to Media Industry News; (did you know that Time magazine is in terrible trouble?)

When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.

The horror, the horror

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you know Joseph Conrad’s work,“Heart of Darkness”, published in 1902?

These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.

The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.

But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.

These include:

— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza

— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africaphoto(48)

— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)

— The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS

— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria

— The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses

Yet another American multi-national moving into another country in order to save on corporate taxes

There are risks to those who cover these stories, beyond the need to wear Kevlar body armor in Iraq or head-to-toe coverings when working around Ebola. There is also PTSD and secondary trauma for journalists and their editors and compassion fatigue for viewers and listeners.

I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.

Or not.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, in Burnt Norton, in 1935: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

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The world is, obviously, filled with beauty and grace and joy, with people who get up every morning and give their best to those around them.

But, really, my dears, this wears me down.

Then what?

Tune out? Become more politically active? Stop caring? Care more? Write a letter to the editor? Blog it? Blog it again…and again…and again…?

Write a check to a charity?
Rant to others on social media?

Or just…not care?

How about you? How do you respond — if at all — to the world’s madness and brutality?