‘Objectivity is the foundation of all the work a journalist does’

Phil Ponce speaks about the importance of unbiased reporting after 4 decades of working at WTTW

By Richie Requena

Phil Ponce retired from Chicago Tonight earlier this year after more than 30 years reporting, hosting and paneling for the show. The veteran says he is somewhere in the baseball idiom of “going, going and gone,” but not quite gone from the world of journalism. Ponce after all, is still lecturing on interviewing at the University of Loyola.

As a host, Ponce has been able to hold balanced conversations on politics and hold fire to the feet of guests who would rather not directly answer his questions. Ponce leaves behind what his colleagues call “a face” on the Mt. Rushmore of Chicago Tonight, interviewing notable guests such as then senatorial candidate Barack Obama, Elmo and Rita Moreno among others.

I reached out to Ponce, who now gets to enjoy his time off to be with his family, about objectivity in journalism; and how the lens of objectivity has changed over time. With objectivity, comes credibility, says Ponce. “If you’re perceived as non-objective, then I think you lose your main thing which gives you professional (credibility.)”

Ponce says that the opinion of a reporter should try to stray away on how they cover a story. “The focus should not be on the reporter the focus should be on the story the reporter is covering. If you are seen as a non-objective reporter, then all of a sudden, you’re no longer relevant.”

Ponce broke down the three things he did while at Chicago Tonight to make sure his reporting is free of bias. Doing the homework, being aware of your own biases, and having your work looked over.

Doing the homework

“I tried to understand a topic, so I know where (the) landmines are, in terms of where the different viewpoints lie, what the different arguments are,” said Ponce. Ponce says this has been able to help keep it balanced. I can only imagine how important it is to know “where the third rail is,” as he put it.

Being aware of your own biases

 “All of us have biases. We live in a culture that has biases in so many different areas… stereotypes about race and ethnicity, religion, social class,” said Ponce. “We’re not immune to the culture. We have downloaded biases and downloaded stereotypes and downloaded prejudices because that’s the nature of the culture.”

“And if anyone says, ‘Oh, I’m completely unbiased  and I don’t have any prejudices’ —-  I don’t buy that. We can’t help it, we live it, we are of this culture. The thing that’s important is to be aware of it, know when you’re wrong, and check yourself.”

Have your work looked over

 “One of the things we do at Chicago Tonight is we share our questions with who will produce the segment.”

“It’s a system that helps make sure that we’re balanced. It’s not a foolproof system, but it’s a pretty good system.”

Ponce was open to talk about a time where he felt that he was not fair enough. In a 2015 panel he did with then mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ponce drew groans from the crowd when he began a line of questioning with Garcia about his son being involved in a street gang.

Ponce spoke to John Kass after the panel saying he “missed the mark” with the line of questions he had and told me he “went overboard” with it. He said he apologized on air for it and to Garcia as well. He said, “People are judged over the course of a career and there will be scar tissue along the way, but you’ll learn from it.”

“When you mess up, say you messed up. It’s not that hard,” said Ponce. “You can always do a follow up piece, or do an editorial note in retrospect, (say) we missed some points in yesterday’s article.”

Being mathematically objective may not be attaining, says Ponce. “But day in and day out, if you are attempting to do your job in a good faith way, I think you will be serving the profession and our audience as well.”

 

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Going into Journalism with a Helmet On

by Ally Daskalopoulos

What do you get when you take a downstate Illinois journalist, a few corrupt governors and the messy innerworkings of Illinois politics?  Well, you get one of the best named statehouse reporters in the country, Dave McKinney.

McKinney was in fourth grade when former president Richard Nixon gave his resignation speech in 1974.  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post reported on the Watergate scandal and the events that led up to Nixon’s eventual resignation. It was Woodward and Bernstein that started a revolution of journalists upholding their role in holding the powerful accountable, and reporters from McKinney’s generation followed in their footsteps.

“It became a calling in a way, I always knew I wanted to write,” said McKinney in a Zoom interview. “I remember having this euphoric feeling of I’m doing what I love and I’m getting paid for it,” he said.

McKinney started out at the Daily Herald newspaper covering municipal government in the Chicago Suburbs. McKinney explained how he immersed himself in local government with each assignment.   “Understanding how government works is really important,” McKinney said.

Hearing about McKinney’s local stories reminded me of my own novice investigative reporting. As a young reporter, it was daunting speaking to someone who got to be in the same room as powerful political leaders on a daily basis. I wondered if journalists like McKinney ever felt nervous or scared of what the future held.

On our call, McKinney sat at his desk with a framed photo of  Illinois’ thirtieth governor, Henry Horner, behind him. After interning at the Chicago Sun-Times in the mid-80s, McKinney was always trying to get back there. So, in 1995, McKinney began what became a 19-year career at the Sun-Times as the Springfield bureau chief. For nearly two decades, McKinney covered six governors, countless elections, policy implementations and Obama’s rise to power.

According to McKinney, statehouse jobs are unfortunately often overlooked.  “In Illinois more so than other states, you need an understanding of the criminal justice system, because there’s so much corruption.” McKinney was there when former Gov. George Ryan was convicted of conspiracy, racketeering, money-laundering and fraud. He was also there when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and became another Illinois governor who went to federal prison.

In 2014, McKinney proceeded to cover future Gov. Bruce Rauner. What he did not anticipate was that covering Rauner’s campaign would change his career in a different way than before.

McKinney resigned from the Sun-Times that same year. The events leading up to his resignation started when he began investigating a story with Carol Marin and Don Moseley. Together they reported on Rauner’s former company and his alleged intimidation of an ex-business partner.

“You can’t get any better than a court document,” McKinney said of his investigative process on the story.

After the story aired, the Rauner campaign went after McKinney insinuating that his wife, a political consultant who never worked on Illinois governor campaigns, was working against Rauner.

Initially, the Sun-Times publisher and editor came to McKinney’s defense. Yet, days later he was taken off the beat which turned into a leave of absence.  McKinney was cleared to return soon after but was forbidden from having a byline on a quick follow-up story to his initial collaborated reporting on the allegations against Rauner. After McKinney protested this order, the Sun-Times agreed to give him a part in the byline. Yet, the paper had already failed McKinney in his eyes.  McKinney felt he had no choice but to quit. Coincidentally, Rauner was an investor of the Sun-Times and the paper quickly endorsed him in his campaign for governor.

McKinney bravely relived the experience for me, calling it a “tumultuous situation.”

“They really pulled the rug out from underneath me,” he said. “My reporting and my integrity were undercut. It was surreal.”

McKinney’s political reporting experience became atypical after his resignation, with time spent at Reuters and now at Chicago’s WBEZ.

On his transition to the NPR affiliate, McKinney looks at it as being much closer to the end of his career than the start of it. “Because of that this idea of radio was invigorating,” McKinney said.

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from my conversation with McKinney was that it’s not so much where you’re working, but what you’re doing.

“Know there’s a calling to it and a greater good to it. It’s a really important part of our democracy,” McKinney said.

Yet, McKinney warned me that, “you have to go into the profession with a helmet on and be prepared to be pounded.”

After our conversation, I understood that I won’t always be paid well for asking the hard questions and doing a job that many want no part of.

McKinney shared a saying from the university president at his alma mater from the 1800s, “tell the truth and don’t be afraid.”

With his helmet securely fastened, McKinney has walked around with those words in his back pocket throughout his career. Hearing that has made this young reporter a little less afraid.

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A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes

BY ANALISA TROFIMUK

Two crucial ideals have carried reporters through years of the constantly changing field of journalism.

The Associated Press’ Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Michael Tackett has worked for widely circulated publications including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. He says that the journalism industry has gone through major shifts since he first entered the field over three decades ago, but that the business still runs on accurate, fact-based reporting.

But in 2021, fighting for accuracy can be a vicious cycle for reporters feeling a constant need to update their stories.

“When I started in the business, there was sort of a time certain when the day was over,” said Tackett. “Now, there’s never a time certain when the day is over, because you can publish continuously 24/7.”

Which can be a good or bad thing. Tackett says the need to always be engaged in stories and the most recent updates does not give reporters time to digest their work.

“It doesn’t always allow for as much reflection as one would like, sometimes it calls for too much reaction,” he said. “I think the more reflection and the less reaction we can put on our stories, the better off we are.”

Reflecting on stories is particularly pertinent when covering politics. Although Tackett earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from Indiana University in Bloomington, he says he never dreamed he would’ve had a future in political reporting. He unintentionally fell into it, covering his first presidential election in 1988 for the Chicago Tribune.

After covering roughly eight presidential elections, Tackett has learned a thing or two.  “You don’t have to engage in everything. If you engage on social media, I would do it in the context of something that advances one of your stories, not something that advances one of your opinions,” he said.

Refraining from reporting personal biases can be a challenge for all journalists, but especially those just entering the field. Tackett’s tips are to stick to the facts and make stories authoritative.

“If you know that a state is traditionally Democratic, say it’s a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican since year ‘x’,” Tackett said.  And when in doubt of any one fact, no matter how small, leave it out. Misinformation seems to spread faster than facts, which Tackett quickly learned when covering the 2016 Presidential Election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. When former President Trump made claims that were demonstrably false according to Tackett, it took a special type of reporting.

“If he said, ‘we all know the election was stolen’ you could say, ‘Trump falsely said we all know the election was stolen’ and then buttress that with ‘his attorney general, more than 60 courts, in every major election audit showed it wasn’t stolen’,” the journalist said.

It is important to recognize that not everyone will believe what reporters write even when presented with an “avalanche of facts.” But the idea of misinformation spreading faster than the truth is not new. Tackett pointed to Mark Twain, who wrote about this same concept long before the existence of social media.

“A rumor goes halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on,” said Tackett quoting Twain. “He said that in the 1800s.”

Sticking to the facts and taking time to reflect are two of Tackett’s pieces of advice for all journalists, not just young reporters.

“Journalism needs people who will practice journalism and not practice misinformation and disinformation,” Tackett said. “Misinformation and disinformation are just true threats to not only the profession of journalism, but to civil society and to democratic living.”

 

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A Collector of Community: In Conversation with Tina Sfondeles on What it Means to Her

By Elly Boes

For Politico’s White House reporter Tina Sfondeles, a career in writing began with a single note.

“I remember [one teacher] sending a note home to my mom that said, ‘you know she’s a great writer when she wants to be,’ which was a great thing for a teacher to say, because it’s showing that you might have some sort of natural talent for something, but you actually have to work really hard,” Sfondeles said. “I’ve had to do that my entire career.”

Sfondeles began her journalism career working for her high school and college newspapers before landing gigs with WBBM-AM Radio, The Chicago Sun-Times, Business Insider and now Politico.

Throughout the process, Sfondeles is most proud of her ability to build community with fellow reporters, editors and other collogues.

“My competitors were my friends,” she said of her work in Chicago. “We would like piggyback off of each other.”

Sfondeles has reported on a wide range of topics from campaign funding, to President Joe Biden’s favorite cuss words, many of which require what she calls her “reporting brain.”

“I have this reporter brain from being a reporter since my 20s … I feel like it’s kind of more of a natural inclination for me to not show bias.”

When it comes to political reporting, Sfondeles says her community is her lifeline to producing more fair and accurate journalism.

“Journalists see life and death a little bit differently than normal people with normal jobs,” she said. “[Working as a general assignment reporter] was a good experience even though it was very dark.”

And — when it comes to controversy — Sfondeles doesn’t shy away from leveraging her professional support system.

“There have been a lot of safeguards for [me while reporting],” she said. “You’re not totally alone, you can do the best you can do but you also have backup to remind you of that.”

Amidst a global pandemic, recent research demonstrates that a sense of community plays a “significant role in collaborative knowledge creation.”

For reporters, like many employees, COVID-19 has severely impacted their ability to connect with others, often due to remote work environments that happen outside of a collective newsroom.

“I am kind of antsy. I don’t want to be home anymore,” Sfondeles said. “I miss the world of in-person communication.”

As a young journalist Sfondeles took advantage of her newsroom experience at the Sun-Times to chat with columnists and investigative teams alike. “You learn so much being in a newsroom,” she said.

Reporters now are still grappling to find community amidst a constantly evolving public health crisis.

One study published last year found 59 percent of journalists surveyed believed social isolation to be the most difficult aspect of covering the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Sfondeles, this became apparent in the wake of the January 6, 2021 capital insurrection.

After moving to Washington D.C six months beforehand, she was just blocks away from the mob that stormed the Capital building. Initially, she said didn’t think anything of it because of the many Trump rallies in the area after the 2020 presidential election.

“I heard a boom, like, I heard lots of noises. That was scary—that made me feel unsafe in my new home.”

Since then, Sfondeles has utilized her social media accounts like Twitter and an email chain created by White House reporters to restore a sense of mutual support.

“There were really poignant emails about ‘I was there, and it was terrible,” she said of the January 6 responses. “So you did feel a sense of community around people who are impacted by that.”

Over Twitter, Sfondeles remains cautious about mixing her personal and emotional reflections with her “reporting brain.”

“If this is your job, and you have to be on social media for work,” she said, “You have to be careful forever. Like there’s no slipping up.”

In the aftermath of January 6, Sfondeles drew on lessons from the Sun-Times to remain fair in her reporting.

“I think that it’s just important to show multiple sides to things and that was kind of difficult in some cases in doing these stories where someone did something terrible and … you have an obligation to reach out to them and get their explanation.”

Still, her dedication to even the most controversial stories never swayed from her emphasis on community support.

“You have to know that you’re a normal human and you make mistakes, and that you might even need some help,” she said.

For Sfondeles, such support is crucial to her professional life even thousands of miles away from her home in Illinois.

“I mean, those are my family. I still talk to everybody [from the Sun-Times], seriously,” she said. “I feel like sometimes it’s my second beat because I know everything that goes on.”

For aspiring reporters, Sfondeles encourages them to do the same.

“I have collected a community my whole life thankfully. I’m just like a collector of humans, of good humans that are amazing people,” she said offering this advice: “Be yourself and collect people.”

 

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If you can only afford one news subscription, make it your local news outlet

BY ANALISA TROFIMUK

Children were dying every month in Minnesota daycares due to violations of basic state guidelines. If it wasn’t for local reporters of the Minneapolis Star Tribune who through their investigative reporting forced state regulators and politicians to pay attention, children attending daycares could still be at risk today.

Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howat earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for their in-depth coverage on the spike of child deaths in Minnesota daycare facilities.

Allison Petty, Lee Enterprises’ Midwest regional digital editor, summarized in a recent tweet why investing locally is the wisest option if readers can only afford one subscription.

“Your (money) is critical to its survival. You get access to national and state stories via wire services, regional sharing,” said Petty. “Your community is strengthened by solid local reporting.”

The power of local news goes far beyond individual beat coverage, though that is certainly where it starts. Reporters who regularly work a beat meet sources, uncover issues, and get the closest look at concerns that impact their communities.

Joyce Dehli, a longtime journalist and Pulitzer Prize board member since 2008, wrote that local news is so much more than basic day-to-day happenings.

“It requires attentive listening to diverse sources, dogged examination of data and other records, and close observation of government at work,” Delhi wrote in an Pulitzer.org article. “It takes time and skill and requires on-site support of editors and other news leaders who live in the community and care about it.”

But newspapers, radio and television news outlets were struggling to stay afloat before the pandemic. The outbreak of COVID-19 only made it worse. Hundreds of newsrooms were hit with layoffs and furloughs. And it was a slippery slope. At a time when news was in high demand, especially accurate and well fact-checked stories, newsrooms were rapidly losing employees.

Time Magazine reported earlier this year that among six chains that own hundreds of local papers, ad revenue dropped 42% during a quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year. Circulation dropped 8% according to a Pew Research report.

More than 90 local newsrooms have closed so far during the pandemic, according to the Poynter Institute.

What is the cost?

City council and school board meetings took place without proper media coverage, leaving the door open for taxpayer money to be used with little to no public input. Stories about neighbors helping one another were never told. In some towns, vaccine distribution information, COVID case numbers and critical health news continues to be relayed in an extremely limited capacity.

It is no secret that subscribing to multiple news outlets can be costly.

The special attention that local news reporters offer their respective coverage areas allows for a more informed, well-educated community.

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Religion has influenced personal politics for many. So why isn’t it being covered?

By Richie Requena

Journalists are proud of their First Amendment right, which guarantees the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The First Amendment also covers the freedom of religion ensuring that people of faith can exercise their religion without fear of persecution. Religion is a very personal topic to those who practice it. So why isn’t it being covered as much as other topics?

As journalists, the most important thing to do is to get it right. And again, because it is a personal and intimate topic for believers, the consequences of getting it wrong could receive harsh backlash.

Telling a story by painting with the same brush can also be very dangerous. Many Americans can remember just how unfairly Muslims were treated in this country and abroad when it comes to topics of terrorism for the acts of 9/11 and other terror attacks in the Middle East and Europe.

Reporting on religion can be scarce, and does not need to be limited to scandals. Journalists need to be aware of the context and timing that show how faith believers are influenced by what they cover. Not all religious stories need to be serious news topics either.

Religion’s influence on politics has divided people based on what they believe in. Views on abortion, COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy, same-sex marriage, capital punishment— among other controversial political beliefs often can be traced back to a person’s religious background.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, younger generations around the world are becoming more and more secular; meaning they do not identify with any religion. Journalists should be able to ask why that is. Do younger generations not agree with the views and stances religious leaders have? Are institutions, like the Catholic church, simply out of touch with the times?

Because there are so many religions and ideologies in the world, it is challenging to even find out who we should ask these questions to. It is important for journalists and editors to be intentional with who we listen to and what stories we pursue. As calls for more diversity, equity and inclusion tactics for hiring have expanded in the country, it is just as important that we consider religion as a topic.

Just as we would not talk to one person of color for a story that touches on race, it is important we have a rich diversity of religious experts we can turn to. We know that not everyone thinks the same, making the intentional decision that shows the depth and context to religion can make a story about religion come to life and be more representative.

Just to show how different a religious group can be, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics practice the same religion, but have very different political leanings. Hispanic Catholics tend to be more socially conservative than white Catholics, but when it comes to the voting booth Hispanic Catholics consistently vote for Democrats while white Catholics lean Republican.

Reporting on how times have changed for religion is also vital to show why they have changed. Take for example the topic of same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court recognized those unions. It was a very dividing topic even for people in the same religion. Now a days there is a lot more acceptance of same-sex marriage compared to even a decade ago. The big question there to ask is how has religion changed since then?

We as journalists need to do a better job of reporting on religion. We have seen what dangers it can do when things are not  reported right. Following 9/11, Islamophobic attack skyrocketed because of the fear extremist had against Muslims. The perspective and beliefs of Muslims have been buried by Islamophobia. Bringing in more Muslim reporters and experts to get their perspectives can be the step to make them more familiar to people who have never seen Islam practiced.

And that is what reporting on religion can do. Religious reporters don’t have to report on sermons and scandals that catch the eye of an audience for a day or two. Sometimes the best stories can be the simple ones that capture life as it is, because those are the ones that show us that we are all human.

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The paradox of a people-pleaser entering one of the most hated professions

by Sadie Fisher

A part of me has always wanted to be a journalist.

I was given the American Girl doll Kit Kittredge for Christmas when I was three. Kit grew up during the Great Depression, and even at the age of 10, she was reporting on the stories in her town and trying to get published in her local newspaper.

I think that gift sealed my fate.

However, there is a paradox that comes with my wanting to be a journalist: I am a chronic people-pleaser. The irony of being a people-pleaser entering one of the most hated professions in the world isn’t lost on me. The public’s opinion of journalists has only gotten worse over the last few years — and that opinion didn’t start highly either.

In the world of “fake news,” journalists are viewed as the enemy of the people. It is not uncommon for people to read or hear a news story with staunch evidence and decide that it is simply not true. This has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and conspiracies surrounding the virus, masks, and the vaccine.

It’s hard to see work you put 110% of your effort in to be picked apart because someone simply doesn’t agree with it. So how do I combat this? How do I take care of myself while entering a field where I am not well-liked by some?

One of the most important lessons I’ve had to learn is that it isn’t about me.Even though I put so much of myself into the stories I produce – it isn’t about me. It’s about producing a story that is ethical, factual, and fair.

At the end of the day, the reason I wanted to become a reporter isn’t to fulfill my ego or feel good about myself.

I’m going into journalism because I want the public to be informed and to tell stories that people should and need to hear.  I want to elevate the voices of those that may not always have a platform to share their stories.  I want to keep those in the public domain accountable for their actions and make sure everyone knows what is going on in their communities and the world.

And with this, I know that some people won’t like what I’ve reported on.

It can sting to not have people like you or the work you put so much time and effort into. But if my goal is to please everyone and make every single person happy with the stories I produce – I will be fighting a never-ending battle for the rest of my career.

This lesson is one I learned firsthand this summer. I interned at the TV news station in my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin – the news station I grew up watching that helped fuel my love for news.  I was able to see firsthand just how hard it is in this industry to please people.  It didn’t matter if I was doing a story on the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine or a fun story about a local zoo welcoming a baby giraffe – a viewer would find something to complain about.  Some viewers would even call if they didn’t like our outfit or our hair.

I quickly learned to never read the Facebook comments on a story I reported.  Criticism – whether warranted or not – is just a part of being a journalist.  And while that may be a hard pill to swallow – it’s something that will kill me if I don’t swallow it.

The main goal I need to have is to produce truthful stories with ethics at the forefront.  I must strive for accuracy and objectivity – not my own sense of fulfillment.  However, I have to keep in mind that I can’t completely ignore my needs and happiness.

The recent conversations surrounding mental health, and how important it is as journalists to keep ours in mind, has only made me more aware of my people-pleasing tendencies.  I must listen to myself and recognize when it’s too much and need a break or someone to talk to.

While it’s important to exert full effort for the sake of objectivity – we as journalists can’t completely give ourselves to our jobs.  We can’t put ourselves and our effort into our work if there is nothing for us to give.  It is a balancing act that I am currently learning and will continue to learn for the rest of my career.

I will never please every person with my stories – and I can’t compromise my happiness to achieve it.  But for what it’s worth – I think three-year-old Sadie would be happy (and pleased) with where I am now.

 

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Newsrooms should reflect the communities journalists serve

By Maria Marta Guzman

At a young age, I never struggled to answer the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” My response was always a ‘periodista’…a journalist.

My earliest memory of journalism was when I was 11 years old watching Univision’s 5:00 p.m. newscast alongside my mother coming home from a long day of work at a local factory.

I remember flipping to the Univision channel and watching Latino anchors like Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas delivering the latest stories of the Latino community.

These moments were the foundation of my passion and interest for journalism.

For me, the afternoon newscast was more than just watching the news. Rather it was feeling represented in the stories that were told by other Latino journalists that looked like me.

Through Ramos and Salinas, I saw 11-year-old immigrant Maria from Nicaragua be represented in the news.

Ten years later, as a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and president of DePaul’s NAHJ chapter, I’ve come to learn the value and importance of proper representation in the media — and not only for Latinos but for different ethnicities as well.

A 2020 research case from the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) organization shows that Hispanic Latinos make up 10% of newsrooms, while Caucasians comprise 73.4%.

You might ask yourself why the Hispanic Latino representation in the media matters, and it matters because the Hispanic Latino population has developed to be the majority of the minority groups in the United States.

According to the 2020 U.S Census, the Hispanic Latino population was the second-largest racial or ethnic group in the country. The Hispanic Latino population is not only growing nationwide but also locally. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Hispanic Latino population in the city surpassed the Black population for the first time ever.

As journalists our duty is to report on the stories of our community and those living in it.

Therefore, if our communities are made of different voices coming from all nationalities and walks of life, should newsrooms not reflect that as well?

Yes, they should. Chicago is made up of Whites, Blacks or African Americans, Asians, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, other Pacific Islanders and Hispanic Latinos.

As the population and demography of the U.S. changes, so will the stories and newsrooms need to be ready for that change.

This year alone, a wide range of Latino centered stories have made headlines.

From the mass migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border to legal challenges in DACA and anti-government protests in Cuba, newsrooms ought to be ready to accurately cover these stories by proper portrayal.

Journalists should be capable of covering any story that can arise despite one’s background differences. But the reality is that many journalists don’t know how to accurately and properly cover stories of different communities and backgrounds.

For example, a non-Hispanic Latino English speaking reporter might not cover communities of color like Little Village, Pilsen, Belmont Cragin or Humboldt Park as thoroughly as a Hispanic Latino Spanish speaking reporter due to the language differences and cultural awareness.

Think about it this way, you are a news director at a local station sending a journalist out to cover the border crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

You have one non-Hispanic Latino English speaking reporter who knows the basic information occurring at the border crisis but does not speak the same language as the migrants at the border do— Spanish.

While, on the other hand you have a Hispanic Latino Spanish speaking reporter who does speak the same language as the migrants and knows the in-depth story and challenges the migrants are facing from experience.

Who would you send? Most likely you would send the Hispanic Latino Spanish speaking reporter with an in-depth knowledge of immigration.

It’s not to say that the English-speaking reporter is incapable of covering the border crisis, they probably are.

But it’s the Hispanic Latino Spanish speaking reporter who has the advantage of directly speaking to the migrants with no translators needed. It’s the Spanish speaking reporter who has the benefit of getting interviews with sources that other news stations are unable to get.

This is one of the many occurrences and examples why Hispanic Latino representation in newsrooms is needed and matters.

Journalism is a public service. Appropriate Hispanic Latino representation is needed in our newsroom not only because there is a lack of it, but because better story coverage is needed.

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There Is No Room for History to Repeat Itself in Journalism

by Ally Daskalopoulos

I was 6 years old when terrorists attacked the twin towers on 9/11/2001, and I remember that day vividly. I was sitting in my kindergarten classroom watching the look on my teacher’s face. She was crying. All the students were soon brought together in a big room, used only for important events or meetings. It was cold, and voices always echoed off the walls. It was called the multi-purpose room. I remember thinking something bad was going to happen. Little did I know, it already had.

At 6, I knew smoke was bad. I knew fire was bad. I knew buildings falling were dangerous. Except, I couldn’t put the pieces together. It was like a puzzle. That was before I knew where New York or Afghanistan is located. It was before I knew the circumstances around those events, and it was well before I knew I wanted to be a journalist.

This year marked 20 years after 9/11, and the puzzle remains with lots of unanswered questions about that day including, who all the victims of 9/11 really were. The world is a different place, and now I am a journalist and I understand more about what happened on that day. So many catastrophes and disasters have happened in the past two decades, but for whatever reason, 9/11 remains the most common comparison for journalists who should be more cautious in language used to relate one tragedy and its casualties to another.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard comparisons to 9/11 everywhere. Originally, it was a disturbance. “The greatest disruption to American life since 9/11,” as Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes said.  As the pandemic progressed, many lost their lives to the virus. In turn, the comparison spread. A 9/11 every two days has described the rising number of COVID-19 casualties. This parallel is not fair, yet it keeps happening over, and over, and over again.

The time has come for journalists stop this comparison and be more cautious with language used.

The number of people who were killed on 9/11 is nowhere near the ongoing number of people who lost their lives to COVID-19. This reality is inevitable when a virus like COVID-19 spreads rampantly. However, the number of casualties has almost become a unit of measure deemed acceptable by the media.

Specific historical tragedies with mass casualties like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, or refugee crises should not be compared as casually as they are. Not only are they sensitive subjects, but they are a part of history that should be left to rest.

It is often said that history sometimes repeats itself. We have seen that with the current pandemic and past pandemics. While comparing pandemics seems like a more logical comparison, we can’t say for certain that they are the same. Often viewed as a rather creative comparison, the 9/11 parallel is usually seen in opinion pieces. Yet, the determination of pursuing the parallel lives on. When historical comparisons evaluating our present circumstances are made, a lack of context can creep in, which can become dangerous for future generations.

On 9/11, I came home from school, and I watched the adults around me transfixed to the TV, not even blinking. My mother had a look of horror on her face that I don’t think I’ve seen since that day. I was scared and I remember always being scared as a child. I was afraid of doing something wrong, afraid of people, of strangers, afraid of anything bad happening. Today, I’m still afraid of those things, but I’m afraid of so much more. I’m afraid that the memory of 9/11 will be forever altered, I fear the way we measure what qualifies as a public disturbance is going to accidentally trivialize valid trauma. Yet, I’m more afraid of what the public is given to contextualize.

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to minimize harm. This includes being respectful to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and being considerate to those mourning the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. The world will never forget the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply extracting the numbers to make sense of a phenomenon that we can’t yet understand is not acceptable. As journalists, we can do better. There’s no reason why we cannot expand our minds further than just focusing on the past. It’s journalism’s responsibility to slow down and be more mindful with our history and word choices. By paying attention to the details, perhaps the fallen can rest peacefully, without comparison.

 

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The Future of Funding for the U.S. Free Press

By Elly Boes

This year, veteran journalists from my hometown announced Nebraska’s first statewide independent, non-profit news organization, the Flatwater Free Press. Like any good reporter, I immediately texted my mum.

“One of the founders looked familiar, Kent Warneke who ran the Norfolk Daily News,” I wrote, adding, “made me think of grandpa.”

Every Sunday, my mum and I would visit her dad to have tea and read the latest edition of the Norfolk Daily News, a small newspaper he borrowed from our public library each week for over 30 years.

“Oh my gosh that is wonderful Elly!! He ran a great paper,” my mum replied.

It was the first good news I’d seen about the news industry in months.

Since the pandemic began, it’s estimated that thousands of newsroom employees were furloughed, laid-off or received pay cuts, particularly in print media.

In digital newsrooms, however, employment rates rose 144 percent between 2008 and 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) saw audience engagement and revenue increase with 43 percent more web traffic directed to non-profit news sites in 2020 compared to previous studies.

As non-profit models see increased success, national policymakers are beginning to catch up, begging the question—what funding best serves the future of the free press in the United States?

One option currently on the table is federal government intervention.

First introduced in 2020, “The Local Journalism Sustainability Act” garnered bipartisan support in recent months, offering tax credits for local news’ subscribers and advertisers as well as compensation for journalists.

While financial assistance would be available to both for-profit and non-profit organizations, critics of the bill argue it won’t address the inherent inequities in local journalism, and rightly so.

Currently lacking in the bill is any discussion around failed advertising models, which often result in major newspaper buyouts by private equity firms like Alden Global Capital, which now owns The Chicago Tribune among others.

Such changes have left non-profits with largely freelance staff. These employees may be excluded from the bill due to a requirement that compensation can only be paid to a local journalist who works at least 100 hours over a three-month period.

Additionally, subscription and funded efforts by Congress may leave minority-owned newsrooms with unequal financial support. A study by SHE Media found less than 15 percentof under-represented publishers saw increased ad-revenue support despite corporate promises to equalize spending since 2020.

But it isn’t just newsrooms that suffer without consistent funding amid a crisis. When the last recession hit in 2008, both my parents and grandparents cancelled our newspaper subscriptions because they were too expensive.

Like other Americans, we turned on broadcast news instead, leaving many of our local newspapers in distress or under new ownership.

Yet non-profit news organizations—both digital and print—are more than surviving this pandemic.

A 2017 study by the Media Insight Project found that just 54 percent of its 2,199 participants paid for access to local news.

Yet the latest data from INN observed that two-thirds of all newsrooms surveyed over the last year received increased individual donations.

Still, major contributions—of $5,000 or more—make up the majority of funding for non-profit models, both in individual and foundational giving.

Given this—and the havoc wreaked on journalism by COVID-19—it’s unclear how sustainable any local news organization will be without any assistance from state or federal grants.

Despite ethical concerns, government assistance for the free press has been employedmany times in the past, including the beginning of the pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program—or PPP, an example of crisis funding—provided newsrooms with wage relief but disqualified many local papers because they are owned by larger companies.

It’s important to note here that most non-profit news organizations—like Nebraska’s Flatwater Free Press—establish themselves in local markets because other legacy papers don’t have the resources to cover specific investigative or community needs.

Like my grandpa, this means audiences seeking free news alternatives during a crisis most often find them at public institutions, such as libraries, or online.

To Matt Hansen, founding editor of the Flatwater Free Press, non-profit models with funding from a variety of sources are key to keeping the free press not only accessible but alive and well.

“The early indications of success in fundraising have really blown me away,” Hansen said in an interview with Nebraska Public Media. “It becomes very clear very quickly, when you got any talk about this project, or projects like this, that people understand the need for this in a way that surprises even me.”

 

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