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RTDNA's New Director, Former Springfield Journalist Dan Shelley on Today's Media Challenges

Dan Shelley
Lucie Amberg
MSU's College of Arts and Letters

Dan Shelley says when journalism is deprived of its right to report on key issues, it’s the community that suffers. The message from the executive director for the Radio Television Digital News Association, or RTDNA, and its foundation, comes amid an influx of fake news and in some cases violence against reporters.

“There’s always been a segment of the population that at best has had tepid support for the news media. But that sentiment really started to escalate during the 2016 presidential election cycle,” said Shelley, who got his media start in Springfield. He spoke with KSMU on Sept. 13 while back in the city.  

The target of that criticism was initially the national news media, says Shelley, but says it’s since trickled down to local broadcast and print organizations.

“Most people don’t realize but since the first of the year, at least 20 journalists have been arrested across the country just for doing their jobs; just for asking the questions, just for photographing or through video documenting news events.”

At least 16 journalists this year have been assaulted, he adds, many of those occurring during protests that turned violent last month in Charlottesville, Virginia. He calls the violence a “nonpartisan phenomenon,” with people of differing political views using hateful messaging and action against journalists.

Earlier this year, RTDNA launched the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force. It defends against attacks on journalists’ freedoms while proactively supporting them, and works to educate the public about the role of a free press.

“All over the country, every single day, there are reports that come out in local TV, local radio, on local digital news outlets that expose a problem, or expose corruption, or shine light on a situation that otherwise the public wouldn’t have known about. And those stories serve as catalysts that lead to positive change in those communities.”

He continued, “We’ve got to do a better job as journalists in highlighting those situations and explaining the ethical dilemmas that we face every single day and how we resolve those ethical dilemmas to try to be responsible.”

Shelley notes that journalists are also members of these communities who, through their professions, are doing their part to help create an informed and educated society.

Trust in Media

There are two types of fake news, says Shelley; intentionally reported false information and legitimate news that is labeled as fake because the subject or subjects doesn’t like it or the truth “Runs counter or is inconvenient to whatever their agenda might be.”

Shelley acknowledges that “responsible journalists make mistakes” in their reporting. However, they’ll take responsibility by issuing corrections.  Often they’re held accountable, he says, and some lose their jobs for neglect or careless reporting. Meanwhile, when purveyors of fake news stories are called out on their mistakes, Shelley says they double down.

Journalism does need to do a better job, he says, of drawing distinctions between “opinion media and responsible journalism.” Both types can be represented on the same network or outlet but during different programs and can confuse audiences.

While trust of the national news media is “tepid at best,” Shelley says studies have shown local news organizations fair well by comparison.

“So the ray of hope here is that [by] working with local journalist across the country we can build on the trust that they already enjoy by the public and make it even stronger and we hope that will permeate all across the country.”

RTDNA is a nonpartisan organization. Shelley says it’s been critical of both Democratic and Republican administrations for their treatment of the media.

The Obama White House, for example, promised to be the most transparent in history and “It turned out to be just the opposite,” says Shelley.

During the Trump Administration, he feels the level of rhetoric and “attack the media model” used to fire up the president’s base is concerning because it affects journalists’ ability to do their jobs.

“But it’s also creating just more divided thought and less productive debate about very serious and important issues that have to occur.”

The only antidote to attacks on journalism, he says, is “more and better journalism.” The means double and triple checking all content and to carry out those reports with composure, or “be the proverbial calm in the storm.”

A Storied History

RTDNA was first established as the Radio News Editors Association in 1946, and has held several names since to reflect changes to the media landscape. It is the largest professional association devoted exclusively to broadcast and digital journalism. The nonpartisan organization advocates for press freedom in relationship to the First Amendment, provides continuing education for journalists, and recognizes their achievements through its Edward R. Murrow awards.

Shelley says he’s focused on expanding journalist trainings, from continued ethics reviews to assisting them in responsibly reporting on climate change.  

Shelley assumed RTDNA’s top administrative role Sept. 11. He had served as incoming executive director since April. While attending school at Missouri State University, he worked for KSMU, which is licensed to the Springfield school. He later interned at KTTS, which turned into his first professional job after college and later the role of news director, which Shelley held for 12 years.  

“During my internship [at KTTS] they had to kick me out of the building every night because I loved it so much. I was always hanging around and asking to do assignments,” he says.  

Shelley has since served in key news leadership positions with iHeartMedia, Radio One, CBS Television Stations and Journal Broadcast Group. He’s a longtime RTDNA member and former chairman of its board. Shelley is also a veteran Edward. R. Murrow Award-winning radio, television and digital media executive.

Amid growing fake news and diminished trust of the national media, Shelley hopes citizens in the Ozarks and elsewhere can recognize that when reporters “Are out asking questions and holding the powerful accountable they’re doing that on the public’s behalf.”

He continued, “Because every time a journalist is harassed, obstructed, threatened, assaulted or arrested, the reporter isn’t the victim - the public is the victim - because it’s not able to get the information it needs to make wise decisions about the future of their family’s life and their community’s.”

Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu