Future of news, readers’ role in journalism discussed at community conversation

October 18, 2018

Can open conversations repair fractured trust between the news media and the public?

A Norfolk forum Tuesday sought to answer that question by providing an opportunity for community members to talk to local and national journalists.

Close to 200 students, community members and journalists participated in the latest community conversation sponsored by the Daily News, Northeast Community College and CalmWater Financial Group of Norfolk.

Tuesday’s event also was sponsored by Humanities Nebraska, which has organized six similar discussions across the state — all on the theme of “An Issue of Trust: Democracy and the Future of Journalism.” Norfolk served as the kickoff event.

In the 90-minute community conversation, panelists and audience members discussed news media perceptions and misconceptions, news consumers’ roles in journalism and ways the news industry has changed over the years.

Featured guests were Jenna Johnson, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, Clark Kauffman, investigative reporter for The Des Moines Register and Frank Partsch, retired editorial page editor for the Omaha World-Herald.

After introducing the panelists and posing an initial question to each of them, Kent Warneke, editor of the Daily News and moderator of the event, invited audience members to offer their own questions and comments.

They were more than willing to do so.

A dozen audience members stepped forward to share thoughts and ask questions on topics ranging from determining reliable news sources to the state of 21st century news media and political coverage.

Partsch said the changes in media now are similar to the rise of broadcast journalism. At that time, editors realized that newspapers couldn’t provide the news first, so they’d have to play to their strengths: comprehensiveness, follow-up and thorough editing.

“If there’s any lesson now, we have to revisit the idea of finding out what our best game is and playing it and being as useful as we possibly can,” he said of newspapers.

Vitriol among correspondents in more recent years, especially on cable networks, was a common observation from both panelists and audience members. One attendee commented on a 15-minute news segment he used to watch in the 1950s as a child, and how different that is from arguing panels often seen on TV today.

Kauffman agreed, while also encouraging the audience to seek different viewpoints in their news consumption.

“You can learn a lot from the back and forth,” he said. “They say conflict clarifies, and I think that happens on these shows.”

Other criticisms of the media brought up by audience members included unfair characterization of all President Donald Trump supporters as racists and the perception of journalists as primarily liberal.

Partsch said that while there are heavily biased outlets, Nebraskans should seek numerous traditional media outlets to get the full story on any given issue.

“We can also read The (New York) Times and The (Washington) Post and Wall Street Journal and good regional dailies and AP — there’s a whole smorgasbord of different ways of covering the news,” he said. “There are different news standards; I’m not saying there’s no bias.”

Johnson said integrity is extremely important to her as a journalist and pointed to the importance of thorough reporting to her colleagues at the Post.

“Above me are several layers of editors,” she said. “Anytime there’s a line in a story that seems like it could be misinterpreted or there’s something missing, it gets flagged and it gets added. We do make mistakes, we do update the stories — the fact that we make those corrections is part of our integrity.”

Some audience members asked how to tell when a story is reliable, and panelists advised a critical and skeptical approach to reading news.

Kauffman said factors like sponsored content have blurred the line between news and advertising, which can further confuse readers.

“At my paper, we have what they used to be called ads, then we called them sponsored stories,” he said. “Now they’re simply stories, but it’s paid content. You have to be mindful of that sort of thing. Take a close look at headlines, bylines and go from there.”

Consumers have a key role in keeping journalism alive, Johnson said, because local accountability is too important to give up.

“The one thing I’ve really come to believe is that communities need to believe in having a local newspaper,” she said. “It means taking out ads when you can and buying a subscription — even if you read it online for free.”

Attendees included Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, Allen Beermann, director of the Nebraska Press Association; state Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, college journalism students, Norfolk High School students and representatives of newspapers from across eastern Nebraska.

Humanities Nebraska will have five more events across Nebraska at locations in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Omaha, Kearney and Lincoln. The program series is part of a national “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils, to start local discussions about the connections between democracy, the humanities, journalism and informed citizens.

NET was on hand to film Tuesday’s conversation in Norfolk, and it will be available for viewing on its website in the near future.