The news is changing. Fewer newspapers around the state, along with fewer reporters working in newsrooms, means we're getting information differently than we once did.
Digital platforms offer an array of information, but it can be difficult to find in-depth reporting about issues we care about, and harder still to judge the veracity of the reporting.
If this feels overwhelming, you are not alone. Only 27% of Americans are very confident that they can discern when a news source is reporting factual news as opposed to commentary or opinion, reports Gallup/Knight Foundation (2017).
What can we do to stay well-informed on issues that matter to us?
We believe we can find the solutions to community problems, but we have to work together. In 2018 we began holding public conversations that brought Wisconsin citizens and journalists together, face-to-face. Beyond the Headlines forums, designed with our local partners, generated ideas and understanding about issues that matter to the communities that hosted them. We heard over and over again that these new relationships between reporters, citizens, and experts in areas such as law enforcement and poverty have made a big difference.
The need hasn’t gone away. Americans value a free and robust press. Despite widely publicized negativity toward the news media, 8 in 10 Americans believe that the media have an important role to play in democracy, particularly in relation to informing citizens (Gallup/Knight Foundation 2017).
Elizabeth McGowan is a journalist who began her career at the Janesville Gazette. McGowan won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting in 2013 for her stories on the regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, published in InsideClimate News. Below is an excerpt from a conversation Beyond the Headlines had with McGowan in 2018.
We’re working to make new Beyond the Headlines conversations happen online. In 2021, we hope to resume our in-person events in the Coulee Region, the Northwoods, and the Greater Green Bay area, all of which will focus on Wisconsin’s Water Future.
What drew you to journalism and what has kept you reporting?
Listening was one of my strengths growing up and I wanted to pursue a career where I could use it to absorb and translate people’s insights and ideas.
Seeing the film The Post reminded me how the precious power of the press is not to be squandered. Although I was a child when stories broke about the Pentagon Papers, and then Watergate, those events made me gung-ho about seeking my own truths. “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” a motto I learned long ago in journalism school, is still so relevant today.
Yes, digital tools have created a 24/7 media, but I have continued to find that readers are hungry for well-told stories that require experienced reporters and editors to “commit” old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism.
No doubt I have to stay nimble to keep up with social media and other electronic tools. That’s why I am a big fan of intergenerational journalism. Younger journalists always want to learn how I do what I do, but I am even more interested in knowing how they pursue, organize, and share their stories because it forces me to evolve and learn new methods.
What do you feel that citizens may not know about the media’s role in our democracy – or about the work of journalists — that you wish they did?
These days, a lot is lumped together as “media.” It’s difficult for citizens to find a signal amid all of the noise. And even if they can, the traditional boundaries between news and opinions are often very blurry. Newspapers clearly define that line, but that is more challenging now that the journalism umbrella has expanded.
In my mind, it’s criminal that news outlets in smaller towns and larger cities alike are shrinking or dying. They are the heartbeat of a democracy that can’t function without watchdogs and informed citizens. All communities need sustenance and depth beyond a headline service.
Four things I wish citizens knew are that legitimate journalists: follow a strict code of ethics because accuracy and credibility are paramount; don’t approach a story with a specific agenda but instead dig in to separate fact from fiction; are committed to inventing new funding models for solid reporting and editing as “mainstream or legacy” news outlets shrink or disappear; and are aware of and humbled by how much power they wield as the Fourth Estate.
Image from Shattered by Oil: Exxon Arkansas Spill and the People Left Behind, a documentary produced by InsideClimate News and This American Land.
You’ll find resources about news media and information about Beyond the Headlines events and community partners here.