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Should Journalists Become Involved in the 'Civility' Debate?

Ryan Welch

All this week, we’re investigating civility and what role it plays in our community.

Today, we’re considering the news media:  what role do – or should – journalists play in encouraging civil discourse?  And what’s the state of civility in terms of how journalists themselves are treated?

Let’s tackle that one first by taking a step back and looking through a nationwide lens.

We talked to Dan Shelley, executive director of the RTDNA, the Radio Television Digital News Association. He’s originally from Springfield.

“We advocate on behalf of the First Amendment and press freedom. We also provide continuing education and professional development for our members and others in the industry,” Shelley said.

Shelley says there’s always been a segment of the US population that has disliked the news media. But those sentiments, and the anti-news media rhetoric, began to escalate during the 2016 Presidential election, he said.

As a result, the RTDNA created the First Amendment Task Force.

“We formed the task force earlier this year because this phenomenon of ‘the most dishonest people in the room’ from one of the major presidential candidates—‘these people are disgusting,’ the ‘fake news,’ the ‘enemy of the people’ rhetoric—originally that targeted only the national news media. But particularly since Inauguration Day here in 2017, that started to filter down to the local level,” Shelley said.

Newsrooms are seeing a increase in harassment and assault, Shelley said—so, a noticeable decrease in civility.

The First Amendment guarantees that we journalists have the right to print and broadcast the facts of the day. 

But it does not guarantee us the trust of the public; that trust, like in any relationship, must be earned and maintained.

One thing that Shelley thinks would help repair that relationship is transparency on how journalists do their jobs.

Dan Shelley
Credit Lucie Amberg / MSU's College of Arts and Letters
MSU's College of Arts and Letters
Dan Shelley speaking to KSMU in September.

“All over the country, every single day, there are reports that come out in local TV, local radio, 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.  And we’ve got to do a better job as journalists in highlighting those situations—in explaining to the public the ethical dilemmas that we face every single day,  and how we resolve those ethical dilemmas to try to be responsible,” Shelley said.

For example, he says news directors and general managers can go on air themselves and do editorials or commentaries and explain their news philosophy. They should detail how they report on sensitive stories, and why they take certain steps.

Dr. Deborah Larson teaches journalism at Missouri State University.  She believes the incivility shown to journalists is trickling down from the top.

“People in the highest power of the country, the president of the United States, saying that the press is ‘the enemy of the people’?  That is a problem.  Because every president will tell you that they’ve had probably contentious relationships with the press.  But in fact, you don’t say the press is the enemy of the people. The press is never the enemy of the people. Our true journalists and press people are doing the business of the people,” Larson said.

She recommends that journalists take a step back from reporting on the rhetoric itself and dive head first into reporting on the nuts and bolts of the laws and policies elected leaders are debating.

Dr. Andy Cline also teaches journalism at Missouri State.   I asked him if he feels it’s the responsibility of journalists to encourage and promote civility and civil discourse.

“I do not think that that is journalism’s responsibility. In fact, I think journalists, individually and news organizations, ought to stay completely out of it,” Cline said.

As far as journalism itself goes, there is a long-established set of controls in the field of journalism that attempts to guarantee a certain type of discourse.  It generally is civil, he said.

“Now, here’s the problem, though.  And why I say that journalists individually or news organizations shouldn’t be involved in this push for civil discourse. And that is precisely because most of the time, calls for civil discourse come from power directed at people with no power,” Cline said.

In other words, he says, people in power try to protect the status quo by proscribing certain types of discourse.

For example, authorities told Martin Luther King, Jr., to ratchet down his protests and just be more patient.

“By picking a side and thinking that civility is politically innocent, journalists are taking the side of power against those outside of power,” Cline said.

I ask him to assess the Springfield news media in terms of approaching stories and civility.

“I think the news media in this town could stand to be a whole lot more aggressive. And in a way that might be defined by power as uncivil,” Cline said.

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