Just when you think you know, you don’t.

by Tiffany Payton

Journalist at NBC News and DePaul alumna, Chloe Atkins, has always had a love for writing. But Atkins notes, that this “road to success” was nontraditional and “not as glamourous as everyone thinks.”

Atkins currently covers abortion access and breaking news. Atkins’ wide array of storytelling began during her time as a college student. She started her career as a fashion and women’s health writer at Vogue and credits her time at DePaul as what shaped her into the reporter she is today.

“For me, during my experience, the professors at DePaul were so gracious to those who wanted to learn. This business is all about learning. Just when you think you know, you don’t. I try to keep that same inquisitiveness with every story I’m on. It’s a part of it.”

During her time at Vogue, Atkins pushed out stories every day under tight deadlines. Atkins would begin her day talking to activists, women, and reproduction experts on both sides of her story. Those connections with Vogue helped her cover the abortion care debate in America by understanding how to cover a topic that encompasses many oppositional voices. Today, she covers abortion access at a critical juncture with the possible overturning by the U.S. Supreme Court of the landmark legal decision of Roe vs. Wade.

Topics of women’s health can be daunting when you’re a woman reporting it because it affects you directly.  There are two very different sides to the abortion debate and Atkins says she reports the truth “no matter what.”

“At the end of the day, a job of a journalist is to stand on the truth and include a variety of opinions,” Atkins said. “Everyone  will have an opinion. Your job is to include these opinions, but fact-check everything you get from a source and report. You cannot weigh your personal feelings in your reporting. The truth and the truth only,” Atkins added.

Truth-telling is the heartbeat of journalism, our audiences trust us to do just that. “If someone tells you it’s raining, as a journalist, you can’t just believe it’s raining. You have to go outside and check to see if it’s raining,” Atkins remarked.

As a journalist, there’s no limit to what you’re going to report on, but you must do it. “That’s your duty. You can’t get too emotionally involved in a story. Truth-telling is not about emotion, it’s about the truth and what affects the general public.”

Atkins stresses how crucial objective reporting is, and how you must balance your personal life with that. “Don’t get involved in a story because it can affect you. As reporters, we all have stories to tell, but audiences, do not have the same experiences and that’s important so you must be cognizant of that. But regardless of how someone personally feels, each day you go home you will feel great that you told the story in truth.”

The truth in storytelling should always enable the reader to fully understand all the information and facts as well as opposing sides of any story. The truth is what the audience deserves and that’s how you build trust with your audience. You cannot build trust without the truth.

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Journalists need to be ‘good’ at telling ‘bad’ news

Fox News’ John Roberts sheds light on how to let viewers down easy

By Hayley DeSilva

When the pandemic first broke out in 2020, our eyes were glued to our screens.

Trying to get whatever information we could, trying to predict the unpredictable, trying to figure out ways to keep ourselves and loved ones safe.

Soon after, we saw a summer filled with violence after the murder of George Floyd sparked civil unrest across the country. Up next, a highly controversial election that had us all on the edge.

As we all know, so much more has happened since. Currently, we find ourselves in the wake of another horrendous mass shooting in Uvalde, TX–and all the news that comes with it.

Simply said, the past two years have hardly been a time of ‘good news.’

The New York Times published a study last year that revealed U.S. media had the most negative coverage of Covid-19 compared to any other source, such as scientific journals or international publications.

The study found that this was true across all national networks, from MSNBC to Fox News.

For so long, everywhere we turn, there is something new to punch us in the stomach.

As a journalist, you get paid to readily receive and dissect those low blows.

While many in our country have been encouraged to limit their news intake for their mental health, those in our profession can’t afford that luxury.

So, in the midst of trying to make sense of the seemingly endless atrocities happening all over the world, how can we do better for our audiences? How do we give them the information they need without sending them into turmoil?

John Roberts, co-anchor of ‘America Reports’ on Fox News and a former senior national correspondent for CNN, believes that it comes down to providing more context.

“Myself and Sandra, and our team for America Reports, try to give people added value, context and perspective on whatever the big story is,” Roberts said. “So, it’s not just, ‘Oh, here’s the horrible news.’ It’s, ‘Here’s what the news is now. What does it mean to you? What can be done about it? How do we change things?’”

Roberts further believes that viewers broadening their media horizons, so to speak, can be another way to avoid being inundated by negativity.

“In this day and age when people have access to so many different streams of information, awareness is becoming more and more important…You need to be able to take a look at something whether it’s online or whether it’s a report from somewhere or wherever you get the information and compare that to other things that you have heard otherwise,” Roberts said. “It’s very easy for you to get drawn down a rabbit hole. So, the broader your platform of information is, the better able you are to have an understanding of where you sit in the universe and what’s really going on in that universe.”

But journalists don’t have to go down that rabbit hole either, according to Roberts.

“Just like anybody who deals with a lot of data, whether they be a stock trader, or whether they be the CFO of the company, they’re being inundated by figures every day,” Roberts said.

What he suggests is that we do our best at compartmentalizing our information, focusing on one subject at a time.

“If you’re trying to grasp everything all at once, you can feel overwhelmed, but if you put it in silos or buckets…it’s much easier to digest and focus on and much easier to compartmentalize,” Roberts said.

One of the authors in the Covid-19 media coverage study, Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth University, shared that the issue wasn’t with accuracy, the negative things being reported were true. The issue, he believed, was with what facts were being emphasized.

Perhaps, if we can keep ourselves from feeling overloaded by the news of the day, we won’t feel the need to over-emphasize. Maybe if we try to see the whole picture, good and bad, our audience can too.

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Trust and transparency in investigative reporting

“You have to show up”

BYLINE: Maureen Dunne

Hollywood paints investigative reporting as a conquest. A source has important information, and the reporter has to have it — no matter their methods.

Whether it be Woodward and Bernstein peeling back the layers of the Watergate scandal in “All the Presidents’ Men,” or Boston Globe reporters knocking on doors of disgraced priests in “Spotlight” — it would seem that all a reporter needs are a foot in the door and enough menthols to wait out a source’s reluctance.

But outside the dramatization of the Watergate scandal or Catholic Church sex abuse cover-up, investigative reporters must form a two-way relationship with their sources. Real people must share their trauma and struggles with investigative reporters to bring these stories to light.

Building trust is an essential — and time consuming — part of the investigative reporting process.

“Trust is built over time with a lot of talking and … a lot of listening,” Jodi S. Cohen, an investigative reporter with ProPublica, said. “This is not something where we talk to someone one day and the next day, we’re publishing their story.”

Cohen’s reporting has uncovered some of Illinois’ largest scandals — from school districts illegally constraining students with special needs to a faulty University of Illinois at Chicago study harming children.

Cohen’s recent investigative work, in tandem with the Chicago Tribune, uncovered the pervasiveness of local police issuing tickets to students for misbehaving at school. Police fined children across the state hundreds of dollars for vaping or fighting, financially burdening their families and causing them to miss more classes to appear in court — in blatant violation of Illinois law.

She earned her sources’ and their families’ trust for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Letting them take the lead on their comfort level with in-person interaction, she relied on outdoor interviews and mask-wearing indoors to be there with them.

”I always think it’s best to be in person,” Cohen said. “To talk with someone face to face and be there. Half the success in journalism is being there. You have to show up.”

Cohen’s months-long trust-building process isn’t just beneficial to her storytelling — it improves public faith in the entire journalistic profession. A report from the Nieman Lab, a Harvard-affiliated organization dedicated to researching the future of journalism, indicated that transparency is key to establishing trust in the media.

That means transparency with not only the public, but sources themselves on what to expect during the reporting process.

“We’re very transparent with all of our sources, whether it’s families or school officials, explaining that we don’t do our stories quickly, we take a lot of time,” Cohen said. “So, there’s just no surprises at all when it comes to what we publish.”

At the core of her work is stories of families deeply impacted by scandals, and often in its wake, policy change.

“[In] investigative reporting, we work to expose wrongdoing and hold people accountable,” Cohen said. “You go into it never knowing what the reaction is going to be and not having any sort of expectation, because it’s completely out of your control.”

In the aftermath of her investigation exposing school fines, the Illinois State Superintendent of Education issued an internal memo condemning the practice. Additionally, the Illinois State Comptroller now prohibits the use of a state program in collecting debt from ticketed students.

And when her reporting creates waves — she’s a phone call away.

“When you get a call from families who are impacted, saying, ‘wow, I can’t believe we’re gonna get a change because of this,’ it’s a great feeling,” Cohen said.

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Staying optimistic with Jane Mayer

by Josephine Stratman

Jane Mayer has exposed a lot of darkness.

The New Yorker staff writer has published pieces revealing corruption in the Bush administration, the political influence of the Koch brothers and shady conversative organizations attempting to derail a Supreme Court nomination. Still, she stays optimistic.

“I may be naive, but I really do think that in a democracy, people actually have to have facts and they have to have information, otherwise they can’t make good decisions, and the government is us,” Mayer said. “…I do really believe in the basic idea that the press is essential in democracy.”

She said that while this doesn’t mean we live in a perfect world, journalism provides the “ingredients for reform” in the U.S.

“It’s not meant to try to make everybody depressed or cynical,” she said. “The hope of the muckrakers heart, I think, is that people will care, and they will fix what seems unfair or corrupt.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, Mayer got her start in journalism at small papers in Vermont. One of her first jobs in the field was as a hospital news reporter for the Rutland Herald in Rutland, Vermont, where she started every shift logging who was born and who died the night before.

She doesn’t see her work now as all that fundamentally different.

“People call me an investigative journalist, but truthfully I don’t actually really think it’s any different from just being any other kind of reporter,” she said.

The real difference, she said, is time to dig deeper.

Mayer said that despite the acclaim of being the Wall Street Journal’s first female White House correspondent, she didn’t like having to work “like a demographer with no ability to set what the news is.” Simply taking notes on the latest the president or press secretary said wasn’t fulfilling, because it wasn’t creative, she said.

She was able to break out of this cycle a bit by setting up a rotation system where she and other reporters would trade off in order to give room to pursue enterprise stories — something Mayer suggests for young reporters in jobs that demand near-constant filing.

Earlier in her career, Mayer was able to find more room to be creative by finding a less high-profile beat. When she first went to the Wall Street Journal, Mayer covered the television industry. Compared to the steel or auto industries, the paper didn’t have a high demand for television news.

“I could write stories that were really fun and interesting, because they just didn’t care that much about the beat,” Mayer said. “So, I would counsel people to, when everybody’s zigging, go and zag.”

The world young reporters are entering is vastly different from the one Mayer entered. The 24/7 news cycle, higher demands of reporters online and on social media and need to glean clicks and pageviews create a lot of pressure.

“Those pressures really are in direct competition with anything long form, anything thoughtful, anything that might be nuanced,” she said. “…It seems to me that the common denominator, the way that you can break through without debasing yourself is to do great reporting.”

That speed also comes at the risk of making mistakes — something no reporter is above. What’s most important, Mayer said, is fixing them.

“It’s not about us. It’s about getting the record right, and getting the facts to people, so we try to fix them,” she said. “I think that’s a real difference between the mainstream press and the more propaganda outfits.”

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Karma kicks back

By Josephine Stratman

One day last August, I was reporting on a shooting in an auto shop in Hunts Point, in the Bronx. A tow truck driver had been fatally shot in a gunfight after an angry teen customer, unhappy that his car wasn’t fixed and he had to pay a deductible, instigated a gunfight. The teen was charged with manslaughter.

I went to the scene the day after the shooting, hoping to track down witnesses and find more information about the victim’s family and the victim himself.

The article we already had online detailed the gunfight, along with some more context: The victim had just been charged with a fatal hit and run.

I expected to just catch some workers who might give me a vague quote about the victim or confirm a picture — basic information another reporter had already obtained. To my surprise, the first person I found at the auto shop was the victim’s brother.

I introduced myself and expressed my condolences. But as soon as the brother heard what outlet I was with, he completely shut me down.

The brother said another reporter from my outlet who had been there the day before messed up coverage of the shooting, misquoting one auto shop worker and making the victim “out to be something he’s not.”

“That’s not who he was… they made it look like karma,” he told me. “His kids are gonna have to see that for the rest of their lives.” He felt his brother had been misrepresented and inaccurately portrayed by my outlet’s reporting.

He was angry. I talked him down and apologized on behalf of the outlet if there had been any inaccuracies. I asked him to explain the supposed misquote, telling him the only way to get a different side of his brother’s story out there would be for him to share it.

The brother stayed adamant, telling me he couldn’t trust us — couldn’t trust me — after the last article.

As journalists, we have to be aware that our interactions with people are impactful beyond just us. Often, when we report on local or community issues, our sources have never spoken to a reporter. Our everyday is sometimes their once-in-a-lifetime.

And that means our responsibility to the truth applies not just our articles but to our interactions.

In the situation in the Bronx, I’m not sure if there’s a clear right or wrong. Did the other reporter misquote the auto shop worker? I can’t know for sure. It’s possible; mistakes happen.

It’s also possible that the brother was simply hurting from the loss of his brother and lashing out at me as a representative member of the media, who didn’t portray his brother in the most flattering light.

Regardless, the point stands: Mistakes matter. It’s perhaps the most basic rule of journalism. Inaccurate reporting harms reputations, outlets’ credibility and can even put public safety at risk. A 24-hour news cycle and constant competitive pressure can increase the likelihood of mistakes.

Fifty-five percent of Americans say careless reporting is a major factor behind significant mistakes in news stories, according to Poynter. Forty-four percent say they stem from a desire to mislead the public. They also point to ill-intentioned reasons, like the fast pace of breaking news.

Factual errors reinforce the public’s distrust of the media. They heighten the sense that journalism isn’t for public service but personal gain. Over and over, I’ve heard the same sentiment: Reporters don’t care about us, they just want page views and a front-page story.

That day in August, I circled the block and grabbed lunch to give the victim’s brother some time to cool off. After, I went back to the auto shop to try one more time, to ask the brother point blank what was supposedly inaccurate in our story. But he had left.

Mistakes matter not just because they’re factually incorrect, but because they erode the public trust, making it less likely they’ll stick around when we try to correct them.

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Good news vs. bad news

We must lift up the good, along with the bad

By Nika Schoonover

Most of what I read is politics. Since I decided to be a journalist, that has always been my direction and, with that, it takes up the largest percentage of my daily news diet. But reading about politics isn’t necessarily fun for me. When I read political news, I’m studying. Memorizing key updates, mentally linking them back to other stories I have read on the matter and the larger context and studying the ways in which journalists write about the issues. But what I enjoy reading, to feel happy and inspired by others’ stories, falls more into the genre of “good news.”

About two-thirds of Americans feel worn out by the news. There is a lack of consensus, however, on news’ most negative traits. According to the Pew Research Center, 22% of Americans say the most negative thing the media does is report biased news, 18% say journalists make poor choices in what or how to report the news, 16% say the worst thing for news to do is lie, mislead or sensationalize, and 14% highlight too many reports on negative stories.

I love journalism and I love reading. I love stories that bring me into a new reality, one that I wouldn’t have acquainted myself with otherwise. There is an artistry to reporting impactful stories and many journalists out there have perfected this ability. One such story I’ve recently enjoyed is The Spine Collector, a piece done in Vulture by Reeves Wiedeman. This story peers into the publishing industry, detailing an investigation by Wiedeman into discovering the infamous manuscript stealer who shocked the industry in his insatiable need to steal manuscripts without a trace. As someone who’s always been drawn to the book industry, I thoroughly enjoyed this read about one culprit’s obsession with disrupting this industry and the writer’s own obsession into discovering just who this person is. Unlike a lot of journalism, Wiedeman is inserted into this story and is even targeted by the spine collector in the pursuit of uncovering this story.

I’ve also come to love efforts to center positive news amidst the plethora of negative and sometimes overwhelming news of the day. Block Club Chicago launched “It’s All Good: A Block Club Podcast,” hosted by Jon Hansen, in April 2021. The podcast seeks to highlight good news in the city of Chicago, inviting listeners to share their own good news stories with the Block Club team. I sincerely admire this effort.

While it is incredibly important to report on the essential news of the day, good or bad, journalists should make a concerted effort to provide their viewers with news that seek to lift positive community members. As I suspect is also true for many in the journalism field, I wanted to become a journalist to provide important information and news, but to also be an impactful storyteller. Storytelling is a uniquely human endeavor and it helps to unite our cumulative experience. Even for a genre of journalism, such as politics, in which the duty to inform is essential, storytelling in the political journalism field should be just as highly regarded.

A Hard Truth

A Hard Truth about the Truth in Journalism

By Hayley DeSilva

As a young journalist on the precipice of graduation and getting out into the field, I am nervous.

While I’ve been told several times that I’m not alone in that camp, it’s not just the expected jitters that come with being a rookie that I’m wholly concerned about.

I’m afraid of the way the perception of news is going. More specifically, that we’re finding ourselves in a world where sometimes even facts are controversial.

I had a professor who sat our class down one day and told us a story of a reporter who did a story on the presence and dangers of global warming. A fact, no less, that has been continuously shared from scientists or other reputable sources time and time again.

He continued that this reporter found themselves in hot water, that their reputation and credibility was being questioned by those who refuse the existence of global warming.

It makes me wonder about, and at times even doubt, the value society places on journalism.

Seeing how reporters and publications are constantly under attack for being biased and opinionated makes me feel like it’s not enough to just seek and report the truth anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of journalists who make mistakes–and plenty of people on news stations who are being presented as journalists when they’re really just someone on a soapbox while they’re on air (I’m looking at you, Tucker Carlson.)

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel like there’s this kind of mystifying gray area in the world of information. The way I’ve been taught, facts are facts. If you have the proof, where’s the sense in denying that?

Yet, there are people who value the words of politicians and mouthpieces who affirm their preexisting biases and ways of thinking more than a reporter with stacks of FOIA’s, hours of interviews, and data that makes your head spin.

It’s no longer the days of Walter Cronkite, who refused to give his opinion on air until the Vietnam War, which he had been covering and evaluating. In an editorial report following his investigation, he stated that he thought the war was unwinnable. Then, President Lyndon B. Johnson was widely rumored to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

While some can still argue Cronkite giving his opinion was unethical, the fact remains that people believed him because he had never offered up his analysis of any story previously. Not to mention, they understood he had witnessed firsthand the reality of the war, which was the opposite of what Johnson was telling the public at the time.

Nowadays, certain presidents and people in power have upped their game. They’ve made us the enemy, us the one’s not to trust—most recently seen during Donald Trump’s presidency, which was effective in turning people against the media. He’d refuse questions from the press, has sued publications for libel, and attempted to strip correspondent’s White House press badges.

Maybe it’s not the majority of people, but it’s one too many who’ve fallen prey to that political tactic. It’s scary to think that so many people refuse to find out for themselves, to let someone else do the thinking for them and just follow without question.

We’ve seen the damaging effects that can have in our world. Imagine if Cronkite hadn’t reported about what was really going on in Vietnam. Or, if the Pentagon Papers, a once sealed study on the history and development of the Vietnam War, were never released–if those brave journalists at the Washington Post or the New York Times hadn’t published them despite facing federal criminal charges for doing so.

News, factual news, is a necessity for the American people–who have a right to know what the government is up to. But if those people refuse to listen, what then?

I know all I can do is what I’ve been taught. When I first set out to pursue journalism, all my college essays revolved around the height of the ‘fake news’ crisis and how I wanted to be a reporter who worked against that.

Four years later, I still do, and that value for the truth and a right to information has been a core principle in all of my classes.

I wish people who doubted the validity of the news could see that. To sit in those classrooms and see we are taught that the truth is paramount–that you never report what you cannot prove.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that seeing it all would just be another fact they’d refuse to believe.

The Power of Person-First Language

By Maureen Dunne

Aaron Tucker was taking the bus to a job interview in a neighboring Connecticut city one Wednesday when he saw a serious car accident. He sprang into action — jumping off the bus and rushing to the overturned car just as it started smoking. He and two other bystanders pulled the driver from his overturned car, where paramedics were able to take him to the hospital.

After his selfless act, ABC News ran this headline: “Ex-convict misses job interview to save motorist.”

It reduced Tucker, a 32-year-old father of two who had gone out of his way to help a stranger, to one aspect of his past irrelevant to his actions. The way the newsroom described one aspect of his identity tainted the way in which readers perceived him, and his act.

Person-first language can seem counterintuitive in journalism. In a field where clarity and succinctness is prioritized, adding an extra preposition to a sentence seems unwieldy. As a student journalist and editor in student newsrooms, I’m guilty of not having been conscious of the power of putting people first — especially with a deadline looming. But, person-first wording can dramatically alter the way in which the subjects of our reporting are seen and treated by our readers.

Admittedly, “ex-convict” is a bit more eye-catching than just “man,” but at what cost? How would readers have perceived Tucker differently had the headline described him as “father?” Would the tension between the word ex-convict and his selfless act be absolved if the article described him as being “formerly incarcerated,” instead of calling him an “ex-con?”

Disability rights advocates have long emphasized the impact of person-first language when writing about people who are disabled. Word choice can mean the difference between dehumanization and empowerment.

Describing someone who uses mobility aids as “wheelchair-bound,” a phrase I’ve read so many times, suggests a wheelchair is a hindrance to, instead of enabling a person’s autonomy and movement. The phrase positions being able to move about unassisted as the default, when countless people are unable to do so.

The assumptions contained in that phrase alone can alienate readers who use mobility aids.

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends ditching identify-first language, like “disabled person,” for person-first language, like “person with a disability.” In cases where the right terminology isn’t immediately obvious, it recommends going with the descriptors members of the community themselves prefer.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit publication dedicated to covering the U.S.’ criminal justice system, released a style guide to covering incarceration with a series of reflections on language penned by people currently in prison. One such reflection details how the word “inmate” is dehumanizing for people who are incarcerated. The writer sees it as stripping an incarcerated person of their individuality and worse, humanity.

I would not have known the gravity of using that phrase to describe someone who is incarcerated. Reading about its impact directly from someone who has felt its weight made me more conscious of how a seemingly innocent or common term may inflict harm onto those whom I use the word to describe.

At the end of the day, the communities we cover are people: People with disabilities, people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, people who are unhoused. Good reporting should be inclusive and accessible to all. Something as simple as being intentional about our wording — and putting the person first — is inclusive for our readers and empathetic to our sources.

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Just and fair reporting requires empathy

By Grace Ulch

I’ve seen more people get into fights over easily googleable facts the last two years than I can ever remember. How could it be that people living in the same communities, running in the same circles can have such drastically different takes on something that is either in writing or on video?

Their go-to news source has a lot to do with it.

Opinion-driven news sources like Fox or MSNBC have taken the legitimacy out of the statement, “I saw it on the news.” So, how can we as reporters ensure facts are disseminated in an accurate, unbiased way? The way most readers want their news?

“A totally balanced and fair observer is actually a relatively recent development in American journalism,” said PBS NewsHour correspondent John Yang. “As recent as the 50s newspapers had a point of view. I mean, the Chicago Tribune for goodness’ sake, Colonel McCormick certainly expressed his views through the news columns of the Chicago Tribune.”

As a person, having values that determine how you see major events like abortion rights debates and the Black Lives Matter movement is inescapable. As a reporter, you are constantly making decisions about what aspects of those events you cover, what’s in your lead, who you will quote and what you choose to leave out.

“A totally neutral report on an event would be a transcript,” said Yang. “Edward R. Murrow said something, that that to some stories, there is no other side. I mean, what is the other side of say Black Lives Matter? What is the other side of violence by police against civilians, is inordinately against people of color?”

After a long career in print, Yang made the switch to broadcast which is where I have my sights set. But, throughout our conversation as we talked about the duty to be fair in the midst of divisive issues, my own sensitivity came to mind.

Overall, I’m a decently even keeled person, but I’m notorious for having heart strings that are easily tugged at.

Early this week, a security guard for WGN TV was shot and killed filling up her gas tank. Seeing her two daughters’ anguish after the loss of one of the biggest parts of them, my eyes welled up with tears at my desk.

I unexpectedly lost my dad on Jan. 1, 2022. It’s something that will be difficult to talk about for the rest of my life and I began to worry that if I am covering a story of someone who has to endure that kind of pain, I might start to crack.

Yang then told me the story of an anchor he worked with, Peter Jennings, at ABC who was notorious for getting emotional. During the broadcast coverage of the wreckage of 9/11, he wore his heart on his sleeve.

“You hear the emotion in his voice. And he says, I just hung up with my daughter. And he said, those of you out there if you’ve got kids, give them a call.”

People are at the heart of every news story, and to cover them accurately you have to work to understand them, whether you agree with them or not. A key to fair, just and respectful reporting is empathy.

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Partisan Divisions and a Lack of Media Trust: Covering Politics in an Era of Political Polarization

by Theodora Koulouvaris

March 8, 2022

Mark Murray has always been a “political junkie.” Murray grew up discussing politics at the dinner table and watching documentaries about the American presidency.

Now, Murray serves as NBC’s senior political editor. But Murray’s career in journalism began before then. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin and completing several internships, Murray started his first job at the National Journal with a desire to report on American politics.

By his third week on the job, one of the biggest political stories to rock the Clinton White House broke: the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. This led to the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton.

These weren’t the only national and political events to impact a young Mark Murray; so did the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2000 presidential election.

“It was just kind of jarring being a young journalist and seeing an impeachment and sex scandal, a contested election in the Bush vs. Gore 2000 presidential race, and then what ended up happening on 9/11,” Murray said. “And that was all in my early to mid 20s.”

Since then, journalism evolved. Murray described the industry as having slower news cycles and fewer news outlets in the 1990s, a time before the age of social media. Now, Murray said major news stories are reported just hours after they break, and the public has more options of where to get their news.

“Today, there are just so many more kinds of outlets that exist and more people getting their news from other ways than through the mainstream media or legacy [media],” Murray said.

Politics followed suit. According to a June 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, American politics have become more polarized since the 1990s as Democrats and Republicans are more divided ideologically than ever before with more Democrats having consistently liberal views and Republicans consistently conservative ones. At the time, 94% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican while 92% of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat.

“While Washington D.C. was polarized in the late 1990s, there was more collegiality among Democrats and Republicans, a lot more trust in news organizations, with almost everyone being consumers of legacy and mainstream media versus more partisan news outlets,” Murray said.

This more partisan and polarized public creates problems for journalists working to communicate accurate information to the public. In a Pew Research study from August 2021, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners claim they have “a lot” or “some” trust in the information that news organizations report. Only 35% of Republicans and those that identify as Republican leaners feel the same way, down from about 70% in 2016.

“Someone like me at NBC News starts off with only 60% of the American public, even considering our reporting and our news judgment,” Murray said. “We could end up reporting that the sky is blue, and 40% of the country ends up saying that ‘Well, you can’t end up trusting news organizations like mine.’”

In this era of political polarization, Murray explained that Americans are staying closer to their side of the political aisle with a willingness to discount information that doesn’t conform with their beliefs.

“So much about politics becomes tribalism, where you want your side to end up doing well or look good,” Murray said. “And when you end up having information to the contrary, people want to dismiss that right out of hand.”

This issue can emerge in the way some news outlets cover politics. During our conversation, I asked Murray about the tendency of networks like Fox News to take positions in their reporting that demonstrate a bias towards former President Donald Trump. Murray said that when there are events that paint Trump in a negative light, Fox tends to avoid covering it. As a result, their audience never hears that information.

“I do think that there is the idea that if there is particular news that makes your side look bad, that you don’t end up mentioning that and then you just end up talking to a bubbled audience, that really can’t be swayed by any kind of news events,” Murray said.

It might seem difficult for journalists to overcome these obstacles, but Murray said the mainstream media continues to play a key role in bringing the public news from both sides of the political spectrum talking to Democrats and Republicans.

“While that’s not often the most perfect way to arrive at the truth, the fact that we are having conversations and sourcing with just not one side or one political party, to me is incredibly important to be able to do,” Murray said.