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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How an Eight-year-old Discovered a Problem in Newsrooms Before Even Getting to One

By: Izabella Grimaldo

One of the first times I walked into a newsroom was at CBS Chicago at eight-years-old. I stepped out of my westside bubble and stumbled into Chicago’s downtown- a place where suits and heels were the norm compared to the working boots back home.

I started feeling the pressure of being a first-generation student younger than eight years old, but with the pressure came the good grades and with the good grades came the free field trips. Honor roll students from Schubert Elementary school got the chance to go to CBS Chicago with one parent, have lunch with journalists and walk-through CBS Chicago’s offices.

The nerves were getting to me-with a million butterflies in my stomach- at the mention of my father’s name and mine to walk in. “Adrian and Izabella Grimaldo? You can go in now!” My heart skipped a beat. We walked over to talk to the anchors and reporters, but I remember turning away and seeing the newsroom in full action and falling in love for the first time at eight-years-old.

My relationship with news was strictly in Spanish, with Univision always on at home.  After seeing the demand, the pressure, the high-paced environment, I knew I wanted to be here, but most importantly needed to be here because no one else like me was. The room was filled with well-educated journalists, who spoke so eloquently. The only ones close to the resemblance of my dad and I were the maintenance staff who happily greeted us with “Hola, muy Buenos Dias!”- that felt like home.

I was just a child when I learned “Educated” and “Educado” are a direct translation of each other but have a very different meaning in the English and Spanish languages.  I was raised to always be Educada, well-mannered and polite. Though as I grew up, “educated” was having the highest degree you could meet and flaunt how you worked to get there.

The maintenance staff were Educados; they were kind and worked so hard surrounded by a group of people who often ignored them. I found myself torn between being next to the people who gave me a home away from home and being with those who looked at me funny for smiling at them and speaking Spanish that day, torn between being Educated and Educada.

When I decided on starting a career in journalism, I had one thing pushing me to stay-regardless of the many experiences telling me to leave: Be the person you wanted to see when you were eight years old in that newsroom. Be the one to demand representation and understanding of the diverse communities in the city.

Over 20 percent of the population in the U.S is Hispanic, with only 7.8 percent of Hispanics in newsrooms. The fact is local reporting from a diverse team is vital to journalism. It is not, however, a battle between Latino and U.S. journalism; it’s just journalism, serving the public no matter who that is.

The transitions in these communities from first-generation to second and third are happening fast and it is up to newsrooms to adapt to these changes. This starts by creating opportunities for Latinos to enter newsrooms and be there for their communities. To advocate for their stories and build a bridge of trust and communications with the community and the media.

I knew that I was an idealist- eager to tackle an issue that was far bigger than me- but now at 22 I can happily say I still hold the heart and hope an eight-year-old Latina from the West Side held then. Still demanding, still building, and still hoping for a space my colleagues and I can grow. Space where I could be both educated and educada, just as my community taught me.

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Implicit Bias of Latino youth in the media

By Jocelyn Martinez-Rosales

In recent weeks, the Chicago Police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo has ignited demonstrations and a city-wide outcry for police accountability. Mainstream news reports as well as hyper-local media have followed the story closely. Simultaneously, opinion pieces have also sprouted causing controversy and push-back.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, was one of the first to write his opinions about the incident, “it’s not too early to stop romanticizing and infantilizing 13-year-olds,” Zorn writes in a column published before police body cam footage was released.

Zorn received heat from Chicago journalists and activists via Twitter. Many questioned if he would have written the opinion piece the same way had Toledo been White. It was only when Zorn was under fire that he deleted his tweet history including tweets about his column and opinion.

In a video produced by the New York Times, implicit bias is explored with an analogy. The video titled Peanut Butter, Jelly and Racism breaks it down, “we’ve all grown up in a culture with media images, news images, conversations we’ve heard at home, our education. Think about a fog we’ve been breathing our whole life, we never even realized it, what we were taking in. That fog causes associations that lead to biases.”

For Toledo, it wasn’t long for the reports to come out of his association with gangs in Little Village and of course, questions about why a preteen was out at two in the morning accompanied by a 21-year-old and a firearm. While as journalists, it’s important to report details, how we frame those details makes a difference.

One Sun Times’ headline reads, “Gang members ‘instructed’ to shoot at police vehicles after Adam Toledo shooting, cops warned.”

If you’re reading that headline, now you’re making associations between gang activity and Toledo. Why is a Latino gang threatening to shoot at police vehicles? Is Toledo a Latin King? These questions and now connections between gang activity and a 13-year-old are made.

Little Village is a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in the west side of Chicago. It’s the neighborhood where soon-to-be 15-year-old girls go to buy their quinceanera dress, where you can find some of the best taco joints and the only place where you can find obscure Mexican cheeses in the city. But if you type in Little Village into a Google search engine, the top stories are shootings, death and violence.

The reality is that Little Village is an underprivileged neighborhood with a median household income of $33,989. For the week of March 22 to March 28 of 2021, the Chicago Police Department District 10 located in the Little Village neighborhood reports five shooting incidents and 40 so far this year.

If the only time a neighborhood makes news headlines is for its crime rate, what does that do to our implicit bias? Columnists who have preconceived notions about brown youth and areas in the city like Little Village begin to not see our youth as youth.

In a 2019 study conducted by Pew Research, it revealed Hispanic Americans were 26 percent more likely than Black and White adults to think their personal interests were misunderstood by the news media. Additionally, predominantly Latino neighborhoods felt less of a connection to local journalists and news organizations.

Implicit bias is inevitable but if we begin to recognize and understand why we have certain associations with races, cultures, economic status etc. then as journalists we can begin to report from different lenses.

In an op-ed by Mateo Zapata published also by the Chicago Tribune, Zapata writes, “we need solutions that begin with telling our own stories so that we can take back control of our narratives and defend the humanity of Adam and all the other kids like him.”

As members of the world of journalism, demanding accountability from peers and news organizations is vital to stop narratives that perpetrate implicit bias and continue a false narrative of Latino youth.

 

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Mental health is getting more attention in the news industry – but are self-care breaks feasible when news orgs are cutting staff left and right?

By Marcus Robertson

As humanity races toward a future with increasingly dire possibilities, journalists have a duty to ensure the public understands every facet of the most pressing issues we face.

To do otherwise is to violate the Society of Professional Journalists’ core principle, “Minimize Harm.” After all, today’s media landscape is fraught with lies, like the ongoing “stolen election” claim initiated by then-Pres. Donald Trump. If we don’t fight it, we are allowing minds to be poisoned.

But how do we find a balance when covering the relentless onslaught of doom, gloom, and tragedy? That kind of constant exposure can wreak havoc on anyone’s psychological wellbeing – but covering it is our responsibility. Are we meant to also minimize harm to ourselves?

“The data tells us that journalists are exposed to traumatic events at a higher rate than many soldiers,” clinical psychologist and trauma specialist Dr. Kevin Becker told the Poynter Institute. “As such, they are at increased risk for the mental health impacts related to the losses and tragedies associated with Covid-19.”

How often must we brush aside feelings of burnout and push on in the name of the greater good?

Within the last year, I’ve started to take my own mental health seriously. I sought out a therapist through the Jesse Brown V.A. Health Center, where I receive largely free healthcare as a veteran. I’ve diligently taken my new anti-depression medication every day, and I’ve kept all my therapy appointments.

It’s helped, but it hasn’t immunized me against the torrent of trauma I’m tasked to keep up with. Maybe reporters should periodically take a break. At the same time, that idea sounds so foreign and incongruent with success in journalism.

If all of my peers are working their asses off constantly, why do I deserve a break?

There’s a view among some in the industry of journalism as a kind of intellectual holy war against lies and injustice. If that’s the model we’re called to emulate, then perhaps we’re meant to embody what Iraq War veteran Kevin Bakker said to mewhen describing his love for those he fought for.

“If I have to choose between my life and yours, fuck you. Go live,” Bakker said. “I’m out.”

Under this view, burnout from constant trauma exposure is just a tragic fact of life on the information battlefield. I might take a bullet or two, but if I can still stand, I had better press on and keep fighting the good fight.

But perhaps it’s better to instead treat mental health and self-care like oxygen masks in an airplane – you can do more to help others if you first take the time to help yourself. I can serve the public much longer if I take the time to care for myself and come back fresh, right? After I graduate and land that job I’ve dreamt of, will I even be allowed to take breaks like that? Should I be allowed to?

I suspect no one can give a definite answer, because as the cliché goes, these are unprecedented times. There’s no roadmap for where we’re going.

Should I put my oxygen mask on before I help everyone else? I wish I could answer that.

All I know is that it’s getting hard to breathe.

 

 

The Need for a Town Square

By Rebecca Meluch

Growing up I thought I needed to be a doctor. When I first came to DePaul, I enrolled as a biology major, pre-medicine student. I idly walked to science classes, studied for exams, and went to lab. But after an entire year, I realized writing lab reports was the only thing I enjoyed in my major. I had a knack for explaining what I observed and documenting it for others to understand. I realized I could maybe make a career out of that. The summer before my sophomore year I changed my major to journalism.

It was quite a large leap going from pre-med to journalism, but when I wrote my first story that was published, I knew that I made the right choice.

I only wish that I knew sooner.

Students enrolled in DePaul’s journalism program, many –– not all –– came to college knowing they wanted to major in journalism. They either wrote for their high schools’ publications, took journalism classes as juniors and seniors, or grew up reading their local newspapers. They had knowledge and background in the field, and maybe some local journalists they already respected. I did not.

I grew up in a small city called Olmsted Falls, on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. When I was in high school and prepared to digest the news, we didn’t have any dependable local journalism outlets. My school didn’t offer any journalism classes, and our school paper was wildly ignored. It’s only now as a college senior that I learned my high school had a paper in the first place.

Cleveland was once prized with The Plain Dealer –– it’s version of The Chicago Tribune. I remember as a child seeing my mom and dad hand pages back and forth to each other, my mom mostly for the coupons, my dad for the sports. I remember passing The Plain Dealer’sgigantic office building on Tiedeman Road whenever my family hopped on the turnpike to take a trip downtown.

Looking from it on the outside, I would have never been able to see how as every year passed, fewer and fewer bodies, journalists and editors took up that gigantic space.

In the early 2000’s The Plain Dealer employed over 350 writers and editors. By 2020, the 179-year-old newspaper employed zero.

The rise of the internet, advertising costs, union busting, lack of readership and distrust in the news –– all ultimately led to The Plain Dealer’s decline.

As The Plain Dealer first began to tear away in ashes, Cleveland.com rose. It’s a mediocre at best, online only, lesser quality, non-unionized news site that barely covers Cleveland’s small towns and lacks the coverage on beats The Dealer once had.

My hometown of Olmsted Falls lost the coverage The Dealer once gave, we lost what my parents used to call our very own town square. People lost interest in reading the news, and I had no physical example of what journalism was –– only that I stopped seeing a Plain Dealer at the end of my driveway on Sunday mornings.

What happened to The Plain Dealer happened all over the country. Local news outlets were being bought out and gutted by corporate hedge funds, papers had to lay off their staff, drop hundreds of beats and abandon coverage in areas that relied on it.

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post. But before she was at The Post, she was the top editor at The Buffalo News for 13 years –– another local journalism outlet that had to make massive layoffs and saw its readership and coverage decline.

In her book, “Ghosting the News” Sullivan wrote about the local news crisis –– and the dissipation of local outlets.

She discovered that since 2004, more than 2,000 American newspapers have closed their doors. From 2004-2015 the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers.

In the news industry, there are the haves and have nots. There are nationally read papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times which substantially have been able to maintain readership and print a physical paper.

And then there are the local outlets –– the outlets that are equipped with people who want to cover small towns and everyday people but aren’t given the money and resources to –– who are left with the decision to merge, adapt, or die.

Local news is vital for small communities to remain connected –– not only with what is happening in their city, but who is living there.

Fans from all over the state of Ohio decreased at my school’s football games –– because there was no one there to cover our team or our top marching band program on a regular basis. People were shocked to hear we had a student who received a near full ride to Harvard, because there wasn’t a reporter who covered local high school scholarship recipients anymore.

Residents played guessing games with one another because they didn’t know what brand-new business was being built in front of the police station.

Without a local news outlet, people became uninformed and distant with one another.

Devoid of a town square that keeps one in touch with the world and its possibilities, people might go on unaware of what is even out there for them to do or see. The loss of local journalism led people astray, people like me who spent an entire year studying to be a doctor, when I could have known earlier, I wanted to be a writer.

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501(c)3 Status: Coming to A Local Newspaper Near You

By Becky Budds

Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have disappeared since 2004, according to a 2018 study by UNC Chapel Hill. But even newsrooms lucky enough to stay afloat have lost the ability to comprehensively cover their community due to layoffs and budget cuts. Now as my hometown newspaper The Chicago Tribune prepares to be bought out by Alden Global Capital, I’m left wondering about the future of local journalism.

But I’ve realized the answer to saving newsrooms across the country comes in the form of a tax status. 501(c)3 status, to be exact.

We know nonprofits to be primarily charities or universities, but what about newspapers? As advertisers pull out from traditional media and readers turn to their phones to keep up with the news, the for-profit model of newspapers has become outdated. Switching to a nonprofit model is the breath of life the industry needs.

Nonprofit organizations don’t have to pay taxes on their income, but their activities must serve the public interest rather than the interest of owners or shareholders and they can’t “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates,” according to the IRS. What kind of organization serves public interest and stays out of politics better than a news organization? To me, it’s a no-brainer.

Nonprofits must also have a board of directors to oversee operations. However, the board doesn’t interfere with the reporting or what’s being reported on. For example, my local nonprofit station, Naperville Community Television (NCTV), has a board of directors consisting of community members who are passionate about the mission and want to donate their time.

In an era of newspaper chains being owned by hedge funds that have strip-mined local outlets, it’s refreshing for newsrooms to focus on community members instead of greedy CEOs. It’s refreshing for newsrooms to focus on investigating and telling the truth instead of the bottom line.

Nonprofit newsrooms still have to make enough money to pay people and keep the lights on, but it’s much easier to raise donations and grant money than to convince people to subscribe.In fact, the latest INN Index of member revenues showed less reliance on foundation grants and more income from recurring donations and memberships.

It gives community members the option to “buy in” to their local news and be able to trust that it’s not influenced by advertisers or shareholders. A reader could click on five articles or a hundred articles— they will never encounter a paywall.

Nonprofit newsrooms are small, but mighty. In 2019 NCTV’s revenue was $1.2 million and in 2020 84% of their operating expenses went towards their mission of “telling local stories on air and online.” From city hall meetings to parades and high school football games, NCTV is there for it all thanks to support from local businesses and Napervillians alike. And because they’re there for it all, the community is more than happy to come out and provide support.

Nonprofit journalism isn’t a new concept. Naperville Community Television has been nonprofit since 2003. Notable publications like National Public Radio (NPR) and ProPublica have been nonprofit for quite some time. And the movement is growing.

In the past few years, two major newspapers — The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Salt Lake Tribune — made the switch to nonprofit. The industry is watching them closely. The Institute for Nonprofit News counts around 250 news outlets in its membership, of which 62 percent focus on local and state reporting, according to the 2020 INN Index.

The Knight Foundation declared 2020 the “Year of Nonprofit Local News,” citing the rapid growth of nonprofit news organizations and a business model “tailored for tough times.” They have also found that “nonprofit outlets have launched at a pace of a dozen or more a year since 2008, with 31 INN members launched in 2018-2019.”

I understand that switching to a nonprofit model isn’t easy, and it doesn’t just happen overnight. Newspapers were designed to be for profit. While many of them don’t churn out hefty profits anymore, they’re still worth millions of dollars.

When the Salt Lake Tribune became nonprofit, it’s owner Paul Huntsman gave up his role as sole owner and publisher. Now, he serves as chairman of the board. Huntsman could’ve made budget cuts or sold the paper to a large hedge fund. Instead, he relinquished his power for the good of the paper.

Without leaders like Huntsman, communities across the country will continue to go without accurate and comprehensive local news.

If your local newspaper is nonprofit, become a donor. Donate your time. Share their articles. Every contribution counts and your community will be better from it. We need good, accurate local journalism now more than ever.

 

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Staring down the job market during a pandemic

By Emma Oxnevad

I hear all the jokes about the less-than-ideal career prospects for post-grads. I laughed along—most of the time. But the pit in my stomach grows with every passing remark and with every thought of life after college.

In a move of extreme pragmatism, I threw myself head-first into the world of journalism, spending my four years as a student juggling positions in student media, internships, and various freelancing gigs. I even managed to get some sleep along the way.

I spent my time as a student confident that I was setting myself up for success, primed to enter the daunting realm of professional journalism with a well-equipped arsenal.

Then, the world was indefinitely shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The onset of the pandemic saw a staggering number of newsroom layoffs across the country, pausing long careers and leaving experienced reporters on the hunt for whatever open positions were left behind. Even though I still had another year of school to go, I had to shut my eyes. “This will all be over soon,” I told myself.

Well, it’s not over. As we approach one year of living under a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed life as we know it, it is high time to accept that this is the new normal.

My time as a student will end in four months. From there, I won’t be able to rely on the crutch of being a “student journalist.” The time has passed for me to laugh and mumble a joke when asked what my plans are after graduation. I’ll be on my own, and I’d be lying if I said the prospect didn’t terrify me.

The economic fallout of COVID-19 has impacted journalists at a disproportionate rate. But we are the profession best equipped to handle such a disheartening time for employment.

Journalists are, by the very nature of the profession, adaptable; working irregular hours, moving around the country, and previously facing the brunt of the Great Recession, in which media layoffs surpassed the 20,00 mark.

The job hunt amid an ongoing global pandemic is going to be a long, frustrating road, regardless of one’s career path. There are times where it may feel hopeless and one may feel inclined to give up and wait for life to “return to normal,” an increasingly abstract concept. But if there is one thing all journalists know, it’s that the bumpiest, most treacherous paths are often the ones most worth going down.

My expectations for my first reporting job have always been low, so as not to set myself up for failure and disappointment. The pandemic has shrunk them even more.

But I’m willing to pound the pavement—virtually, until it is safe to gather with others— and fight for my spot in a professional newsroom; I’m willing to hear “no” a hundred times over if it means I can hear “yes” even once. And it is the time spent as a student journalist—full of unanswered messages, getting stonewalled and spun by my university, and a few sleepless nights here and there— that has prepared me for this most intimidating endeavor.

Because reporters don’t give up.

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Don’t meet your heroes, they say

By Joanna Talabani

I remember being a kid and watching Christiane Amanpour on CNN. I was enamored with her poise and her elegance. She went into the trenches of fire reporting on trouble in remote parts of the world. She had a funny last name like me, and she still worked her way to the top of a global news channel. While I was lacking the British accent, maybe there was room for me up there, too.

The days where I used to stand in front of the television with a hairbrush as a surrogate microphone mimicking her live coverage are (mostly) in the past. And while I would love to one day be able to thank her for giving me such a profound reverence for journalism at a young age, I don’t know that I could do so without fangirling.

See, whenever I meet someone I admire, I have a hard time taking off the “let me appease you” hat and putting on the “ask tough questions” hat. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I’m a student and most conversations go like this:

Potential interviewee: Hello?

Me: Hi, my name is Joanna Talabani and I’m a student at DePaul University…

Potential Interviewee: *click*

Me: Hello, hello? Did we get disconnected?

So, when a conversation doesn’t go like that and someone actually gives me the time of day, I feel indebted. I owe them an easy interview, not to be interrogated. Of course, the journalist in me knows that isn’t true, but it’s hard to persuade the googly-eyed fan sometimes.

I recently interviewed someone whose mind I put on the highest pedestal. We’ll call this person “Joe Schmo.” Schmo is an amazing journalist in his own right, and very accomplished. I was intimidated when we were still just chatting over emails. He uses hard-to-pronounce words in his text lingo. “Um” and “like” aren’t in his vocabulary. They are very much, unfortunately, still apart of mine.

I praised Schmo and his talented prose before our interview came to fruition. As prepared as I was research-wise, I don’t know if I could have fully prepared for how I’d feel actually probing him. Don’t meet your heroes, they say. I get why that’s an adage now.

Schmo, as polished as he always is, wanted to know what I was going to ask him beforehand. All my journalistic training has told me never to release questions to the interviewee prior to talking. At best, it ruins the live energy and prompts them to give canned responses. At worst, it will be used to rehearse an effective dodge strategy.

So, did I do what all my journalist professors have advised me to do since the beginning of (college) time? I did and I didn’t.

My journalistic training has taught me to think for myself. I don’t take things for face value and I question everything. Including this steadfast rule about sharing questions. I sent Schmo a few sample questions to peruse before our interview. Why did I do that?

Because of whom Schmo is. He is not a politician I’m trying to nail. He isn’t a controversial public figure. He’s someone who was gracious enough to share some of his expertise with me as a student. And if having a few questions helps him maintain the polished demure image he’s known for, what’s the harm in that?

Here’s where I think there could be harm. If Schmo was someone I, or others, were very critical of. If Schmo was convicted of wrongdoing, corruption, or misconduct. If Schmo was an allegedly guilty party and not just someone who has anxiety about public speaking. But I’m not aiding the next Blagojevich in worming his way out of tough answers. And my journalistic training has taught me to be able to identify this kind of gray line.

For the record, Schmo was not the most pleasant person to interview. His ego could barely fit on the screen with him. He spoke disparagingly of other journalists. Now, reading those books of brilliance of his somehow don’t hit the same.

Schmo was just someone I admired, but it got me thinking back to my journalistic hero, Christiane Amanpour. Could I risk ruining the physical persona of my childhood dream? If the opportunity arose, would I opt to keep her shelved away as inspiration to reference in the back of my mind?

I realize that what she represents to me is too precious—not just a dream, but a culmination of that dream. I might want to share a cup of coffee, but interview her? I think I’ll pass.

You know how they say don’t meet your heroes? I’m fine with meeting them, just don’t ask me to interview them.

 

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Hacking the Algorithm and Its Use for News, Promotion and Activism

By Damita Menezes

The online world has been a saving grace for mankind during the Covid-19 pandemic. With economies shutting down and businesses moving online, there has been hope for folks who have the privilege to work/study in front of a screen. And social media has helped people connect with one another now more than ever.

Before the pandemic, it was common to be exposed to articles documenting the negative aspects of social media and how we must limit our online use to have social interactions IRL. When everything moved online, we relied heavily on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Slack, Reddit, Discord, LinkedIn, etc to stay updated with one another personally and professionally.

Keeping up with all these platforms has been imperative and I couldn’t help but notice how different social media platforms are used differently to communicate different messages with different kinds of friends. The way one communicates and who they communicate with is different in every medium. But where do we draw the line between professional and personal content? How do we separate our styles of engagement and consumption? How do we express our personal beliefs and keep them separate from our professional? Do we need to do that? Also, in light of current situations going on with the Black Lives Matter movement and the involvement of social media activism, how does one find the balance between being “woke” and abstaining from performative activism?

Considering all these questions, this article will provide an idea on how we can manage and seize the power to control the media we consume and make the best use of it, if you are a media person or are an average user of social media.

A little background and Journalism before Twitter

I created a Facebook account when I turned twelve years old in 2012 because of peer pressure and because I didn’t want to miss out on what my friends were talking about every day in school. Facebook was “awesome” for my twelve-year-old self. I could share meme’s, comment on pictures, press the “like” button, tag people, type my thoughts out, etc. I was immediately addicted. My mind craved online validation and along with that came my anxiety and overthinking.

Over time, I have learned how to regulate my virtual being to some extent, but with a new social media platform popping up every 4 years or so, it gets overwhelming. And you will relate if you’re Gen Z.

I got Instagram 2 years later because it was getting popular among my peers and Facebook was deemed to be for older folks. Snapchat came about and was for the real connections; the close friends you want to keep in touch with on a day-to-day basis. I finally joined Twitter in 2016 and recently started using it regularly because it was encouraged by my professors as it is the perfect media to get the latest of the latest news. Having so many social media accounts get exhausting and it gets especially hard to keep up if you’re a journalist.

Social media is a great tool to stay updated with friends and family, but it is also great to stay updated with the news. Many folks rely on their social media feeds for their daily dose of the news. An Instagram poll I conducted involving around 50 participants with an average age of 23 showed that Twitter and Instagram were the leading platforms for their news consumption. A newspaper subscription, TV news and podcasts ranked in 3rd, 4rth and 5th place respectively.

For journalism, social media has enabled reporters and news agencies to promote their work and compete with one another with the latest scoops and commentary. “Journalists are under incredible pressure to not only do their stories for their publication or broadcasting station or network, but they are also under enormous pressure to report on social media,” said Chris Bury, a Peabody and Emmy-award winning reporter and a journalism instructor at DePaul. “My main concern is that it doesn’t give reporters enough time to do their jobs and the result sometimes is that the reports that they do are not as thorough and full as they might be because they’ve had to spend much of their day worrying about Twitter or Instagram.

Before Twitter, longer news cycles enabled thoroughly investigated work. With the advent of Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle has been trimmed to just a couple of hours or minutes and with this conundrum comes the question of journalists’ opinions on social media and the separation of personal from professional.

Keeping up with the Social Media posts and The News

For the common folk, the struggle to “keep up” comes about; The struggle of having different types of friends on different platforms.

“It is hard to keep up with everyone being on different platforms because some of my friends aren’t on Snapchat, some aren’t on Instagram. So, for some people, you don’t know what is going on in their life unless you reach out to them,” said Joey Cahue who studied PR, Advertising and Journalism at DePaul.

It gets even more complicated to keep up because all these platforms have different communication modes. Instagram only does pictures, graphics, and videos. Twitter does tweets, pictures, links, trends, news etc. Facebook is more closed with groups, private profiles, etc. This tempts people to have all platforms to keep up with different modes of communication.

Eight out of the 10 interviewees for this article confirmed with me that they are overwhelmed with keeping up. And with the current unprecedented events, social media hasn’t been too kind on the mind.

With the Black Lives Matter movement lifting off again, on June 2nd, Instagram was filled with black images with the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday to show solidarity and raise awareness. Following those posts were people accusing one another of performative activism.

The positive side of activism on social media is that people have been using their accounts to educate one another and learn more on how they can help the movement and put an end to systemic racism. Without the marriage of a camera phone and social media, the reaction of the injustice that George Floyd endured would not have been this passionate.

It is important now more than ever to keep up with the news and there are many resources out there. If you don’t have a news subscription, I recommend following a minimum of 3 news social media accounts: one for local news, one for national news and one for world news. Listen to news podcasts (BBC’s Global News Podcast and The Daily). Sign up for newsletters that summarize the news very easily.

Tip from an old school news junkie

If you’re a journalist and you’re finding it hard to keep up with the news online, I asked journalism professor Rick Brown who has no online presence whatsoever on how he keeps up with the news. “I read the New York Times cover to cover, and then I move on to the Washington Post. Then I will go through a whole series of websites like NBC, ABC, CNN and that’s giving me more stories that are more recent. Then I will head to local news like Chicago Tribune and Chicago Suns Times. I will then move on to Politico and the Sports Websites. I will also check the DePaul news media. I repeat the process all day long every 3 hours, for any updates.”

Understanding Algorithms and The Hack

Overtime, these social media platforms have received updates and changed their designs and consumption styles. These changes have either attracted or pushed people away from their platforms, therefore changing user demographics. Examples: Instagram including Snapchat’s stories feature, Snapchat moving the celebrities feed with the friends feed, etc.

The New York Times Podcast Rabbit Hole is an “audio series about how the internet is changing, and how it’s changing us.” While listening to this podcast, I started thinking about algorithms, how we consume media and the ability to customize our media consumption. Algorithms have the ability to shape what we like and dislike. This kind of power can be pretty intimidating and therefore it is up to us to be able to think in retrospect and control our consumption.

I have come up with some changes you can implement on your social media accounts to serve you better without having to create separate accounts for different purposes. At least until Biz Stone and Mark Zuckerberg don’t give us the ability to fully customize our feeds. Also, Stone and Zuckerberg, if you’re reading this, hire me so we can work together to create the best algorithms for the best user experience.

For Twitter:

When it comes to personalizing your Twitter feed, you can really only switch your feed from receiving the “Latest tweets” or the “Top Tweets.” This is limiting when you follow so many people and follow different kinds of accounts. Twitter’s “lists” feature got me pondering over how we might be able to separate celebrities/influencers from close friends from politicians and news companies. When you create lists and pin them, they will appear as separate feeds in your Home feed. In these lists you can add people without having to follow them.

Have a look at my lists for example. And because I have created these lists, I only follow friends and fellow journalists. I have sorted everyone else into these lists. If you think these lists can be limiting to your main feed, there is the option to show the latest tweets from the lists to appear in your main feed.

For Instagram

Instagram doesn’t let you do much either when it comes to taking control of your feed. However depending on how you want your Home feed to look like, I recommend using the “close friends” and “muting” and “post notification” tools to your full advantage. If you want to share something with only close friends, share them in your story under the “close friends” option. If you don’t check Instagram regularly but want to be updated whenever friends post, enable “post notifications” on their profile.

Another important thing to remember is that you have the ability to follow who you want to follow. That person’s content is going to pop up in your feed. If you don’t want to unfollow, you have the option to completely mute them.

The Personal and the Professional for the media creator

It is often discouraged for journalists to voice out their opinions because of the perception that it might be interpreted as biased reporting. Bury mainly uses his social media platform for professional purposes and tries to comment mainly on the 2 topics he thoroughly knows: Journalism and politics. “I feel compelled to as a journalist to stand up for journalists and journalism when we are under attack. I have no problem standing up for journalists when the President of the United States calls them the enemy of the people,” said Bury. “But some journalists can’t stand up because of company policies and they have to be very very careful and I have certainly followed those policies when I was at ABC news.”

Late millennials and Gen Z journalists who also use social media for personal reasons, are often subjected to this dilemma of personal and professional. Student journalist Cam Rodriguez, has tackled this by creating different accounts for different purposes. “I had my first Twitter account when I turned 13 and that account is more for personal stuff and I found that as I got into college, it became harder and harder to maintain a professional outward facing appearance while I had personal interests and profanity and things that I wouldn’t necessarily want an employer to see.” Rodriguez made that account private and created a new public account for journalism only. On the public account, she is more careful with liking and retweeting and strays away from anything overtly political.

This tactic of creating separate accounts is employed by many social media users. On Instagram, this is known as the “finsta.” It is an Instagram account that is extra private to an individual. “Finsta for me almost falls along the lines of trolling,” said communication and media studies graduate John Cotter. “It’s people projecting their complaints and insecurities to a small percentage of people that are in their close friend group.”

Cotter doesn’t believe in the idea of a finsta. “You don’t know who you’re trusting. Anything you put on social media, it’s there and glued. Even if it is private. There are screenshots everywhere of anything controversial. As private as you want it to be, it is never private,” said Cotter.

For social media influencers or Youtubers, their lives are often the content. Finding a balance between personal and the professional can be tricky. Youtuber Reese Regan has close to 400k subscribers and portrays her life on social media as it really is. “I don’t really have any private or personal accounts. I don’t have anything to hide that is super private; I don’t have the most interesting life. What you see on social media is how my life is living.” Regan promotes her YouTube content on the same social media accounts she uses to stay updated with a few friends and family.

This minor issue between the personal and professional mainly only arises to folks that make media. For folks who work in other sectors and only consume media, finding the balance between personal and professional can be easily separated with websites and apps. LinkedIn is for the professional and Instagram, Snapchat etc. for the personal.

Final Words

The pandemic has pushed us all to stay connected online but it is important to take breaks from our online lives. I recommend listening to this episode “Dial D for Distracted” by The Happiness Lab which is a podcast based on Yale’s most popular course taught by Dr. Laurie Santos.

Make up what you want after considering all these ideas and conversations, but I implore you not to ignore the real news out there; the news that reports on the decisions that shape our lives.

 

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