Understanding the three buckets: a conversation with Cynthia Tucker

By Emma Oxnevad

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker wants to set the record straight on commentary. While journalism has traditionally been distinguished by the “three buckets”— reporting, analysis, and opinion writing— she worries that the lines between the three are beginning to blur.

Tucker said that the rise of digital journalism has muddied the waters between fact-based reporting and commentary, which relies on a writer’s ability to convey an argument.

“In the heyday of print, it was easy to see the distinctions visually. because the opinion section of the newspaper was clearly labeled,” she said. “…But now that we have moved to the digital age, even with the labeling, it’s really harder to see. Literally, it is harder to tell what you are reading, so those who are not already schooled in the distinctions might be easily confused.”

She also attributes this lack of understanding to the mislabeling of cable news programs, which often impart subjective opinions, as objective reporting.

“MSNBC, CNN has a lot more commentary than it used to,” she said. “And Fox labels itself as, what, ‘fair and balanced?’ But it is, of course, unfair and unbalanced. And it’s not news.”

Tucker highlighted Fox—which is well known for its conservative programming— as being particularly harmful, describing the level of influence it can have on otherwise uninformed viewers.

“If you grew up watching Fox News if you’re 20 years old and you come from a conservative household, or you believe that is the news, you have no idea of what straight news sounds like,” she said.

Tucker said that this lack of media literacy concerning the proverbial three buckets was brought to her attention, in part, by her work as the Journalist-in-Residence at the University of South Alabama.

Tucker often assigns her students to acquire a digital news subscription and select a reported news piece to discuss in class; she said that oftentimes, her students will select a column rather than the assigned “straight news” format.

“My first year teaching at the University of South Alabama I didn’t even understand that my students didn’t know the distinction,” she said. “I didn’t understand that I needed to go back and teach them what an opinion piece was. So now I spend a lot more time on that.”

In an attempt to combat this lack of media literacy, Tucker said she repeatedly emphasizes the importance of consuming a variety of publications to her students.

“I tell them over and over again, listen to NPR, read the New York Times, the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post,” she said. “Listen to the evening news on the big three legacy networks ABC NBC [and] CBS. I emphasize that over and over.”

When discussing the future of commentary, Tucker stated that she believes the practice is going “back to the future,” in reference to news being used as a partisan vehicle, as they were in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

“If you look at what is happening today. You see more and more news entities that are full of commentary dedicated to a particular point of view, even those I respect,” she said. “…So, I think we’re headed back to a time when commentary, or at least reporting, that supports a particular ideology will be most of what we get. I regret that. Because I’m not sure that’s what we need.”

 

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Trump’s Press Revolution

A Conversation with Gerald Seib

by Justin Myers

Under Donald Trump, the presidential press room became a lions’ den branding journalists the “enemy of the people” and labeling sound reporting as “fake news.” With President Joe Biden now in office, these relations have begun to improve significantly, but his anti-media stance lingers in the rhetoric of those who still support him, still haunting political reporters.

Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, as with many aspects of his presidency, broke Republican party norms. The GOP, with its never-ending wariness towards institutions of all types, has always been skeptical towards journalistic media. That wasn’t new with Trump. What was new, however, were the heights to which the former reality television show host took that skepticism to.

Gerald Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal, in his new book “We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump — A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution” follows how the business mogul-turned-president crafted a radically new system of party values that were an extreme departure from his Republican predecessors.

“People wonder two things: how did we get to the point where Donald Trump was the Republican president and the leader of the conservative movement when he was so unlike Reagan?” Seib said. “And then, secondly, they want to know, ‘Where does this go from here?’”

How did we get to this point?

Having grown up in a largely red-blooded community on the northernmost border of Springfield, Illinois, I lived in close vicinity to many of the political movements in Seib’s book leading up to and following Trump’s election. Despite this background, I have always been consistently taken aback by the degrees to which Republicans grew such vitriol against the press under Trump — a plague that affected many people I grew up around.

“It was an obvious political tactic to try to generate enthusiasm at the [party] base because, if you can attack the ‘liberal’ press, people will rally to that,” Seib said. “I think a lot of the attacks on the press that you saw from Donald Trump were calculated to appeal to base voters, not a reflection of genuine sentiment.”

In his book Seib describes how the former president utilized the same advertising tactics he gained through his reality T.V. experience to build up a personal brand, appeal to swathes of Republican reporters and protect his own self from scrutiny.

“The reason those … intimidation tactics are there is an attempt to stop the watchdog role that reporters and journalists play,” Seib said.

The Washington Post reported that Trump made 30,573 inaccurate or misleading claims over the course of his presidency, leading to plenty of reason for why he would want to attack the watchdog reporters. To accomplish this, Trump stood at rally lecterns and sat at the Resolute Desk, calling out reporters and news organizations by name, and built around him a new movement which hurled constant vitriol against those news outlets not branded with the Oval Office’s seal of approval.

“You get attacked by Trump supporters no matter what you write,” Seib said. “You have to have a thick skin.”

So, to ask the second question behind Seib’s book, where do we go from here?

As a DePaul journalism student who has spent most of my college days plagued by constant headlines of so-and-so from such-and-such newsroom getting kicked out of a White House press briefing, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot.

“What Donald Trump did was [that he] chose to fight every day with the media that covered him,” Seib said. “It was a relationship very much filled with animosity, and dangerous in some ways.”

Seib recounted stories of reporters forced to hire security guards to watch their homes around the clock due to threats they received at Trump rallies.

“There’s nothing like that in the relationship between Biden and the press or, really, most politicians and the press,” Seib said. “What you’re seeing in coverage of the Biden administration is a return to kind of more traditional … give and take between the White House and the press that covers it.”

If there’s any consolation to journalism students such as myself about to break free from the safety net of academia into a real-life newsroom battered by Trump’s press abrasion, it’s that Seib, who has interviewed every president since Reagan, sees Trump as an outlier.

“What you’ve seen in the last four years is not normal,” Seib said. “It doesn’t define the relationship between journalists and the people they cover or between journalists and the people they write for or broadcast for. It’s not a healthy situation … [but] it’ll change, and I think it will evolve back towards something more normal.”

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Reporting on the election with all five senses – and from home

A conversation with the New York Times’ Peter Baker

By Ella Lee

Peter Baker’s best ledes just ‘pop up’ in his head. That’s not because the New York Times reporter has all the answers, but because good journalists use all five senses — and ledes combine those senses, as succinctly as possible, to reflect what the reporter has witnessed.

But 2020 has changed the job. Baker, along with most Times journalists, has been working from home since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Reporting journalism is about seeing and hearing and experiencing and feeling and touching and smelling and all those things,” he said. “You can’t do that over a Zoom call, and you can’t do that watching a stream.”

As the 2020 election got closer, those challenges became more apparent. The Times determined early last spring that its reporters would not go to the White House unless it was their turn to staff the press pool, Baker said.

“In the fall, when [President Donald Trump] was doing these rallies, it put us in an awkward position, because rallies are clearly unsafe,” Baker said. “Thousands and thousands of people there, who were not socially distanced and generally not wearing masks.”

Still, he and other Times reporters attended some of Trump’s rallies until a colleague got sick with COVID-19 and the bureau decided not to send reporters anymore.

Reporting on the election from home all-but-eliminated the fundamental aspects of covering a political campaign — sights and sounds, witnessing what energizes and motivates a candidate and their supporters.

“You don’t get any of that doing it from home; it’s nothing the same,” Baker said. “It’s the difference between playing video baseball, and actually playing baseball; you can play a video game, or you can actually go to a park and hit balls. And those are two very different things, you know, it’s just not it’s not even close.”

Despite the world turning on its head in March, one aspect of Baker’s job remains the same, and has for the past four years: Trump. That’s made covering his administration both “wildly unpredictable and wholly predictable” at the same time.

“I don’t think he’s changed; I think he’s just more,” Baker said. “A lot of things he did were shocking, but they were not surprising. He did a lot of things in Washington that just aren’t done for a lot of reasons and he just blew past all sorts of norms and boundaries that other presidents respected. And yet, none of that is really a surprise in the sense that that’s what he clearly made his political career about.”

Trump’s presidency has required journalists to learn quickly — relying on fact checkers to ensure the veracity of the president’s words and adjusting coverage to most productively reflect his antics, like non-stop tweeting.

“I think all journalists kind of wrestle with figuring out what the right level of attention was to give to the various attention-grabbing things he did,” Baker said. “And I’m not sure if anybody ever came up with a completely satisfying formula, but clearly it did evolve over time.”

As the pandemic continues and American politics evolve, so too will journalism. But what Baker says is the most important skill for young journalists to achieve is one that can be harnessed regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in: persistence.

“If you can’t get the information going through the front door, then try going through the window,” he said. “Do whatever you need to do to get what you need for your story.”

 

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Reporting on the election with all five senses – and from home

A conversation with the New York Times’ Peter Baker

By Ella Lee

Peter Baker’s best ledes just ‘pop up’ in his head. That’s not because the New York Times reporter has all the answers, but because good journalists use all five senses — and ledes combine those senses, as succinctly as possible, to reflect what the reporter has witnessed.

But 2020 has changed the job. Baker, along with most Times journalists, has been working from home since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Reporting journalism is about seeing and hearing and experiencing and feeling and touching and smelling and all those things,” he said. “You can’t do that over a Zoom call, and you can’t do that watching a stream.”

As the 2020 election got closer, those challenges became more apparent. The Times determined early last spring that its reporters would not go to the White House unless it was their turn to staff the press pool, Baker said.

“In the fall, when [President Donald Trump] was doing these rallies, it put us in an awkward position, because rallies are clearly unsafe,” Baker said. “Thousands and thousands of people there, who were not socially distanced and generally not wearing masks.”

Still, he and other Times reporters attended some of Trump’s rallies until a colleague got sick with COVID-19 and the bureau decided not to send reporters anymore.

Reporting on the election from home all-but-eliminated the fundamental aspects of covering a political campaign — sights and sounds, witnessing what energizes and motivates a candidate and their supporters.

“You don’t get any of that doing it from home; it’s nothing the same,” Baker said. “It’s the difference between playing video baseball, and actually playing baseball; you can play a video game, or you can actually go to a park and hit balls. And those are two very different things, you know, it’s just not it’s not even close.”

Despite the world turning on its head in March, one aspect of Baker’s job remains the same, and has for the past four years: Trump. That’s made covering his administration both “wildly unpredictable and wholly predictable” at the same time.

“I don’t think he’s changed; I think he’s just more,” Baker said. “A lot of things he did were shocking, but they were not surprising. He did a lot of things in Washington that just aren’t done for a lot of reasons and he just blew past all sorts of norms and boundaries that other presidents respected. And yet, none of that is really a surprise in the sense that that’s what he clearly made his political career about.”

Trump’s presidency has required journalists to learn quickly — relying on fact checkers to ensure the veracity of the president’s words and adjusting coverage to most productively reflect his antics, like non-stop tweeting.

“I think all journalists kind of wrestle with figuring out what the right level of attention was to give to the various attention-grabbing things he did,” Baker said. “And I’m not sure if anybody ever came up with a completely satisfying formula, but clearly it did evolve over time.”

As the pandemic continues and American politics evolve, so too will journalism. But what Baker says is the most important skill for young journalists to achieve is one that can be harnessed regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in: persistence.

“If you can’t get the information going through the front door, then try going through the window,” he said. “Do whatever you need to do to get what you need for your story.”

 

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Policing polarization

Journalists are meant to inform not polarize––a deep social and political divide persists when the truth is shadowed by bias.

By: Quinn White

During a time where factual, unbiased reporting is needed most, there is an extreme polarization plaguing the truth and encouraging bias in the United States. Politics in the U.S. have forced many to feel pressured into choosing the lesser of two evils. The tumultuous social climate–birthed out of unrest between Blacks and police officers– continues to feed hate and anti-police or anti-Black vernacular. The pandemic persists feeding the sorrow that’s consuming the nation.

We are living in a polarized state of chaos where each side screams their opinion demanding that it’s heard while closing their ears to the thoughts of the opposing side. When nobody will listen to each other, who are we supposed to trust? Journalists–or so you would think.

It is the job of journalists to expose the truth and inform the populace of said truth. When there is so much bias and blatant, shameless polarization infecting the minds of so many, it’s more important now more than ever for journalists to keep their opinion out of their reporting and simply seek out the facts. For journalists to coat their reporting in blatant bias is a much more dangerous act than many choose to realize.

It’s important for the truth to persist– it is the only way to halt the growth of the budding unrest that’s deeply dividing the nation. If the reporting at networks like Fox and CNN remain biased, so will the divide. People who are deeply biased and take no time to recognize opposing opinions are going to seek out reporting that only further supports their thoughts– feeding an “I’m right and they’re wrong” mindset.

If you think you’re doing the right thing by reporting with bias weaved in, think again. It’s time to rid reporting of bias altogether and leave those seeking fellow agreeance in their news with no answer other than the truth. If the truth is what dominates our news, then people are left with opinions that are formed based on factual evidence rather than blurring bias.

It’s human to have ethical and moral beliefs that drive your thoughts and actions. However, it is not the job of a journalist to spread their opinion–their duty as the voice of news requires the exact opposite. Bias, opinion, and polarization have no place in the world of journalism–– its time more people speak out on this topic without fearing being cancelled or criticized, journalists will always be criticized regardless.

The social and political unrest has gotten to such a toxic point that if it isn’t thwarted by fact, journalists may forever be labeled as “fake news”–even if their reporting is fact based. This is not to say there aren’t journalists out there reporting on fact–there most certainly are. This is to say that the major news corporations dominating our television and phone screens need to stop feeding their own agendas and start doing the true job of journalists–reporting the truth. A quote by the former co-owner of The Washington Post, Philip L. Graham, comes to mind that states, “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” History is meant to recount facts of our world’s past, not provide a look back through a blurring lens. Journalism is more than just a job, it is an honorable duty to present, future, and even past generations.

Events like 9/11 are remembered because of the honorable work of journalists. Instead of reporting from the safety of news stations, courageous reporters like Carol Marin took to the front lines––wading through noxious clouds of dust and rubble––to ensure that Americans could see with their own eyes what was happening in New York on that soul crushing day. The fact of 9/11 is that many innocent people lost their lives to the blinding hatred of terrorists––nobodies’ death that day was justified.

To be able to report on the truth is a privilege that should never be taken advantage of––we must always keep journalism honest, and in turn, keep our history books honest.

News Notifications: Necessary or Nuisance?

By Crystal Hellwig

*ding* *ding* *ding*

I, like many Americans, have spent the last couple of months bombarded with push notifications from news sources and doom scrolling through my Twitter feed. Constant updates regarding Coronavirus, elections, protests and natural disasters have been at the forefront of my mind.

Even I as a journalist am often fatigued by the 24-hour constant news cycle. So, it is no surprise that readers are as well. A 2019 Pew Research Study found that two-thirds of Americans feel worn out by the amount of news coverage available.

The study also found that news fatigue was more likely to occur in those least involved in politics. This poses the question of whether or not notifications are helping news organizations to get more people involved or are pushing them away?

This doesn’t mean that we as journalists should take a break or do less work. As the distrust for the news media is at an all-time high, these past few weeks have provided a reminder for how important a free press is in keeping the public informed.

But push notifications from news sites are not random, people that sign up for them are interested in the news and want to be informed. Clearly, there is a fine line between keeping the public informed and inundating them with alerts.

With the changing news cycle comes the question of quality over quantity? News updates are coming in faster than journalists have time to write the articles. Gone are the days of daily deadlines, instead now a constant upkeep of information. This adds a higher chance of reporters making mistakes.

As newsrooms all around the country are shrinking, even more so with recent layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic, a smaller number of reporters are left with the task of verifying information, interviewing sources and updating the public both on their sites and social media. So, the decision of what deserves an alert is an important one.

“These decisions are made on the news desk, based on each case, for a given notification. Whoever is supervising the desk has the ultimate call, but every potential notification is deliberated on by multiple editors in every case,”  said Michael Owens of the New York Times in an interview with NYT’s Liz Spayd  discussing how the paper handles push notifications. “One of the big objections people have to alerts is that they’re not ‘breaking news.’ Even though we no longer advertise them as only for breaking news, I think that’s still an expectation people have — that people will only be interrupted for really big stuff. But we’ve discovered that both as a way of amplifying our work and as a way to engage people, and get them into the app, there’s actually a pretty big appetite for things that are not breaking news.”

News alerts and mobile devices have transformed into the only way many people now get their news. Research shows that 7 out of 10 Americans get their news from their phones. So, it makes sense to keep it as well-rounded as possible.

News organizations have the same responsibility now as to deciding what push notifications to send out comparable to the difficult decision editors make daily of what takes precedent on a newspaper’s front page.

News notifications are the new front page.

-30-

Objectivity in the Modern Age of Journalism

By Cam Rodriguez

My first – or most formative – brush with journalism was Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, a 2014 documentary tracing Edward Snowden’s actions as he leaked information about international surveillance by the United States and United Kingdom to the international community. The documentary stunned me, particularly because it wasn’t a detached recap and analysis of the event after it happened – it instead showed Greenwald and Snowden side by side, evading police and extradition in Hong Kong. At times Poitras has to intervene in order to keep her source safe, highlighting a degree of involvement that was revolutionary to how I saw journalism at the time I was a teenager.

When I started pursuing reporting academically, the idea of being utterly unbiased was reiterated time and time again, and built on more traditional paradigms of what journalism is shown to be – I wasn’t supposed to intervene, I was to be a blank slate; I’m a mirror reflecting the two prismatic sides of an argument in order to best promote fairness and truth. But where should the line be drawn between reporter and stenographer? At what point can a reporter intervene, or at what point do we abandon this notion of “objectivity” and distance altogether?

The truth is that instead of learning how we can better address and incorporate our personal experiences and beliefs, we’ve been learning how to smother them. Instead of appearing as equal and on the same level as our sources, we’ve existed in a liminal and unattainable space, penalizing ourselves for living outside of our work.

And instead of acknowledging our lives, we’ve worked to hide them and ensure they don’t see the light of day, in fear that a random onlooker will call our entire portfolio into question.

It’s a counterproductive practice. In the same way that a sleepaway camper desperately wants to know their counselor’s name (and, of course, whether they have a crush on the other cabin’s counselor, too), by withholding basic and foundational information about ourselves and our beliefs, we fan the flames of people wanting some sort of discovery. We also create a falsity that we’re different from the people we interview – which can also come to haunt us as we search for sources and stories. We’re gatekeeping ourselves by subscribing to an outdated model of reporting that’s just unfit for the way that journalism is changing.

If we want to appear as trustworthy members of the community, we need to act like someone we would find trustworthy. If you were at a block party and someone toting a camera started asking you a bunch of probing questions about your life without answering any questions you had about them, would you give them the time of day?

There are grains of truth in our traditional understanding of an objective journalist as an impassive observer. Wouldn’t it be revelatory to have an impartial, unbiased look at news? To just have the facts? To have a clear view of the truth?

Of course, it would.

But our pursuit of objective reporting glosses over the very human process of reporting in the first place: someone picked what to study and what numbers to report; someone then took those numbers and picked which ones they saw as relevant for a story; the reader then picks relevant numbers of their own, and chooses which ones are important to share with others. The entire process of news, from start to finish, is entirely fallible, regardless of how much data is visualized or how many eyewitness accounts are acquired – and when the process is subject to scrutiny and is called into question, claiming objective reporting is just a fallacy.

I think that’s why Citizenfour struck me as such a standout form of documentary reporting. The film, married with Greenwald’s release of the documents Snowden leaked to him, stand as a form of journalism that doesn’t try to purport itself as something it’s not; Greenwald and, to a greater degree, Poitras, understand that the project borders on activism and advocacy. Citizenfour is even the third in a series by Poitras on the shady actions by the U.S. government following 9/11 – it’s a thematically consistent piece that’s hard-and-fast journalism by nature, but follows a narrative that Poitras is creating that she believes strongly in.

With tackling objectivity in our work, it’s not a matter of abandoning it altogether. Instead, it’s an industry-wide need to acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, we still bring our own personal narratives to the table. Doing this is a start to breaking down the walls built up by our readers and viewers: instead of viewing the media as a monolith, maybe they’ll view it as their neighbor down the street.

 

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Off of the internet and into the streets

By Patsy Newitt

Social media and the internet have, of course, altered the course of journalism. News cycles are shorter, Twitter is king and budding journalists are required to know how to do it all: audio, video, photos, live-tweeting and engagement.

But what’s forgotten throughout this narrative is the multitude of citizens who aren’t online.

The internet reaches a pretty homogenous group. Twitter users, for example, are typically younger, wealthier and of the political left, according to a 2019 Pew Research Study. 42 percent of Twitter users have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 31 percent of the general public, and they are three times as likely to be younger than 50.

In Chicago, there is a distinct digital divide, which falls, as many things do in this city, between the North and South and West sides. More than half of the households in Englewood don’t have internet access in their homes and in the South Shore, 46 percent.

Lack of internet access is a barrier — it’s nearly impossible to fill out a job application or learn remotely, let alone stay informed. And while journalists can’t singlehandedly fix access inequity and injustice, they can work to meet people where they are and provide crucial information and resources to those who need it.

But yet, there seems to be little to no effort by news organizations to reach community members offline, or at the very least being in tune with online communities.

This is the essence of community engagement. Newsrooms need to be looking for ways to reach groups that aren’t the Twitter demographics — white, upper-middle class and politically savvy.

Journalists need to leave the newsroom. Journalists need to reach people offline to figure out what they need covered, what information they’re missing and most importantly, how they want to receive it.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has stunted the ability to meet in person, there are newsrooms who are putting in the work, finding innovative ways to engage with groups who are historically disenfranchised and undercovered.

Injustice Watch, a non-partisan news publication for example,  is sending copies of their ballot guides into Cook County Jail. Nonprofit journalism lab City Bureau hosts free workshops called Public Newsrooms to be more responsive to community needs.

If journalists and publications are going to paint themselves as those who speak truth to power and give a voice to the voiceless, then they need to be putting in the effort to reach past the digital divide.

You can’t expect readers to adapt to your standards and practices, particularly if those standards and practices are inaccessible in the first place. If you want to be making a difference, if you want to be addressing injustice, journalists need to be finding new ways to reach people.

 

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A fact checker’s role amid a pandemic

By Ella Lee

Fact-checking has historically been used to debunk urban legends and in newsrooms behind the scenes, ensuring the veracity of reporters’ work. But in this era of viral misinformation, the role of the fact checker has become more public and more vital than ever, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on during an election year.

As a fact checker for USA TODAY, I witness the depth of misinformation online each day. Thousands of unfounded claims — from outlandish conspiracy theories to an intentional tweak to claims otherwise true — percolate online each day, many of which garner millions of views and interactions.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the world, the stakes for fact checking were raised. Falsehoods about the virus and the ways in which people should protect themselves from it could do more than spread misinformation — it could kill.

Some of the first false information that spread online had to do with the effectiveness of masks. The mixed signals sent by the federal government at the beginning of the pandemic about whether masks are effective protectants against the virus led to a confused country, unsure of whom to believe as most mask messaging was divided down party lines.

At USA TODAY, we showed homemade cloth masks do offer protection, and confirmed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t say otherwise; reported N95 filters aren’t too large to stop COVID-19 particles; explained HIPAA and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments don’t give business patrons a loophole out of mask-wearing; and that wearing facemasks don’t cause health problems, like hypoxia, hypercapnia or a weakened immune system.

While some of these claims may seem outlandish, each was shared hundreds of thousands of times online, many of the post’s creators and people engaging with the social media posts adamantly believing they were true.

Even more dangerous misinformation soon began to spread as talk of cures began to seep into the mainstream conversation.

Claims that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a miracle cure to the coronavirus began to make rounds on social media this summer, after President Donald Trump lauded it as potentially one of the “biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” The drug does not work — not here, nor abroad — and some studies have found that it might be dangerous when used on COVID-19 patients.

Like in that case, the falsehood-fighting cause isn’t helped when the country’s leaders are often where the misinformation begins. A study by researchers at Cornell University found that the “single largest driver” of coronavirus misinformation is President Donald Trump.

In addition to claiming some drugs are miracles before scientists have backed that up, the president has often pushed a false narrative about the severity of the virus, grossly misinterpreting CDC data as recently as last month. And, of course, pointing out those falsehoods only deepens the partisan divide which already exists in America. That it’s an election year adds fuel to the fire, too.

That’s not to say misinformation hasn’t also come from across the aisle. A talking point frequently repeated by the Biden campaign, and mentioned by Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris during the Sept. 7 vice presidential debate, is that Trump’s administration fired the White House’s pandemic response team in 2018. That’s not fully true — the Directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense was disbanded under Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, but Trump didn’t fire them. Some resigned and others moved to different units.

It’s clear that 2020 has cemented the need for fact checkers around the globe. But the scope of the fact checker’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet fully known.

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“It’s the Best Job There Is”; A Conversation with Joshua Yaffa

By Marin Scott

As a previous editor once told me, “if you wanted your job to love you, you went into the wrong profession.” I find myself facing this statement often—after a long day of breaking news, endless documents from FOIA requests, even having to transcribe an hour-long interview at the last minute. It’s in those moments when you think, when will it all just stop?

While every journalist can relate to this sentiment, there is no one more in love with journalism than The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, Yaffa found himself working in Russia, a surreal country for those in the U.S. While there he was hooked by the spectacular life of a journalist, one that he would later come to embody through his reporting for publications like The Economist, The New York Times and Bloomberg Business. Along the way he found time to write a book, Between Two Fires, about the ambitions and dreams of those living under Russia’s governing eye.

At the time of this conversation, our award-winning journalist sat in a chair drenched in sunlight, patiently answering each of my questions from a remote part of Karelia, Russia. There was talk of politics, the state of American news and objectivity in journalism. But most importantly, Yaffa articulated what drives him—what drives all of us—to keep reporting.

Here’s a peek into that conversation.

 What about journalism first hooked you and when was this?

I was living in Russia in the years after college, so this would have been the mid-2000s, and I was first doing some State Department related scientific exchange work. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I had thought that the diplomatic or policy track might be the thing that would interest me, and that’s what I was interested in college. But somehow, as I was getting prepared to come back to the States after spending a couple of years in Moscow… something about journalism just grabbed my attention. It’s hard to explain or remember exactly what. It seemed like a way to indulge and pursue the interests and curiosities and wanderlust I had without subjecting myself or without turning myself over to large bureaucracies that would be harder for me to control.

Is it difficult to find everyday Russians who are interested and willing to talk to a journalist?

No not really. I mean, it’s hard for me to compare. To your first part of your question, I know from talking with colleagues, I have way less access to official and government sources here than say friends who work as political journalists in Washington where being cozy with the press and saying things off record, developing relationships– that’s just part of the culture and ecosystem of Washington. That doesn’t exist here. But when it comes to getting the stories and experiences and opinions of, as you say, everyday Russians, I don’t feel like that’s so difficult.

I feel like you have a great deal of access to the rare, interpersonal stories you’re able to tell.

People seem motivated to tell [their stories]. But, I think, to your point, people here can often be motivated to get their story across to a foreign audience, knowing that that perspective isn’t always transmitted to American readers.

Konstantin Ernst says in your book that journalism isn’t the civic duty that it has been made out to be, but rather a game where everyone has a stake in the outcome. Do you believe that this is true?

I mean, like all good propaganda claims, what makes it so maddening is that it contains this kernel of truth that it would be foolish to deny or argue with. So, you can’t just sort of tell him he’s 100% wrong because that’s not believable, and you don’t necessarily believe it, and you look foolish, and it’s not convincing.

There is, especially in the age of Trump, we can talk about the American media– and this really comes in the chicken or the egg problem. I do sort of blame, in quotes, Trump by making the press the enemies of the people. That adversarial tone comes from Trump rather than it coming from the media but nonetheless, three years into the presidency, we are left with a situation where the press has an even more adversarial position vis-à-vis the Trump administration than any other administration where good political journalism should be adversarial to those in power– regardless of who they are– but there’s something particularly personal, it feels like, between Trump and the press. Now, I don’t know if you call that an agenda, but it’s when your job is to be a faithful truth teller and you’re dealing with someone who is a veteran liar.

What keeps you invested in reporting?

It’s just so fun! Reporting is just this totally gleeful excuse to indulge in all sorts of curiosities and interests. What other excuse could you have for calling up these fascinating people and saying you want to sit with them and have them tell you their stories, or even better to go to wild, far-flung or just interesting places rich with history or the kind of intensity of current events– it’s just such a joy to be able to have that sort of built into your job…

It’s just the best job there is.

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