A plea from a news person on this News Engagement Day
Today is News Engagement Day. For many, it's a day for media criticism and discussions of journalistic ethics (what day isn't?), but I want to focus on the "engagement" part rather than on the "news" part for a few minutes.
Engaging is a verb. It means to participate, to partake, to perform an action. We don't ask much of you, dear consumers, so please take a moment to hear me out: it's time to do more than comment, share and complain. It's time to decide how you feel about the news, what you want from it, and shoulder some of the responsibility for making it better.
When I decided more than a decade ago, in high school, to become a journalist, I did it because I wanted to learn, write and teach every day. I took - and still take - this very seriously. I have spent many hours researching media history, law and ethics, and many more actually acting out the role of reporter and writer. I make every effort to be accurate and interesting. I can't speak for everyone in my industry any more than you can speak for everyone in yours, but from my experience my colleagues at magazines, newspapers, web-based news organizations, radio stations and TV news do the same.
We also know you don't trust us. We know you don't want to pay for the product (that you don't trust) that we provide. But we also see how much you share and comment on the things we write, and we know those of you with strong opinions about our coverage wouldn't be so vocal if you didn't care about getting accurate and informative stories from us. We know that among those stories you read about the "death of news," newspapers and magazines shutting their doors or being sold to large conglomerates or selling their souls for clicks. But another thing we know, that we rarely talk about, is that the answer to all of this doesn't just lie in our reporting or editorial meetings or marketing departments. We aren't hiding anything from you. You're the ones holding out on us.
News consumption has been passive for too long. In the beginning, it made sense. Your town got a massive piece of paper with weird characters on it that you probably couldn't read once a week and you had to gather around and listen to someone explain what it said. Things have clearly come a long way. You have access to more information now than ever. You are reading, you are sharing, you are commenting. That's not enough.
We know it's overwhelming. It can be hard to know who to trust. And yes, we get frustrated with you, as anyone does when people on the outside opine on how their job should be done. But getting past the annoyance and ego, the truth is that we do what we do for you, but we're in this together. We'll do the reporting, the filming, the editing, the teaching, but in order for news to be really effective, you have to be open to reading, viewing, hearing and most importantly understanding it. You have to really want to learn something, not just absorb something you already know or agree with. You have to be discerning. You have to know the difference between The Sacramento Bee and InfoWars.
I'm not trying to put all the work on you. I know we don't always do the best job at communicating to you what you need. I think a lot of that has to do with the rapid rise of technology and social media and many traditional news organizations' v e r y s l o w response. But we're working on it. We're trying new things every day. We're developing new ethics guidelines that specifically address these issues and media literacy classes that will give you the tools you need to know who to trust.
And I'm not assuming every news consumer has the same level education. But you - the person who knows what News Engagement Day is and is reading this blog post right now - you can do better. You can use Google and Snopes to determine whether something is real before you share it. You can think before you comment, and make the decision to use your voice to contribute something of value. When you aren't trolling, we are listening. You can subscribe to media you trust and you can support start-ups trying to bring you daring and honest and vibrant journalism. You can write to editors and journalists - actual emails, not snarky Tweets - with ideas, suggestions, questions and concerns. News can be better, and we will figure it out through trial and error, focus groups and research. But if the truth is as important to you as your complaints and criticisms make it sound, you can - and should - do something now. Below are some suggestions on how to engage.
Pay for news if and when you can, and encourage publications to pay writers. You may not realize this if you're not in the business, but a lot of what you read and share on social media is written by people who got paid little or nothing for it. Reporting, writing and editing are work. They take time, talent and resources. They deserve compensation. Pay for your news if you're able, and make sure the publications you patronize are paying for their content. If they're not, let them know you as a consumer understand the value of that work and demand a change.
Do your research. I don't mean write a dissertation on media literacy. But if you see something that seems a little fishy, look it up. Sometimes you'll only come up with more questions, but that's good - ask them. Ask them of your friends, and ask them of the writer of what you read. It's usually pretty easy to find their contact information. Other times it will quickly become obvious that what you're reading is from a fake or highly biased news publication, or is a hoax, or is someone's misunderstanding of another person's report. Being able to figure this out and remember it for next time is media literacy. Our schools don't do a good enough job of this, and we're working on that, but for now just take two minutes to Google.
Be open to learning and sometimes being wrong. I can do my very best reporting, writing, editing and fact checking, but I know that there will still be someone who doesn't believe what I put out there. As journalists we are trained to do it right, and only publish things we feel we can stand behind. Yes, sometimes we mess up, and every once in a while one of us does something awful on purpose. But setting aside those outliers (which exist in every single industry), there will be a lot of times that you read something you don't agree with, or don't want to believe, but it's true. A report on climate change science, for example, or an interview with a person you admired whose answers are terrible and offensive. This creates cognitive dissonance, I know. It's in our nature to avoid challenging our own beliefs, I know. I can't change all that with a blog post. But my plea, as a news person, on this News Engagement Day: consider it your duty as an engaged news consumer, and just try. Just try to approach something you don't like to read about with an open mind.
Give us feedback. If you see any news organizations asking for feedback about their coverage today or any other day, take them up on it. That's taking an action, and it's taking a step toward better engagement, and ultimately better news.