The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of Salish Current.
This publication’s recent forum on media and democracy, appropriately billed as “Trust 2022,” highlighted the ongoing and well-publicized challenges facing a news industry that has endured massive economic setbacks, a technological revolution, and a diminished relationship with a significant section of the general public. But, unlike other sessions of this kind that point to a rather desperate present and a bleaker future, this one provided glimpses of hope and renewal. It also charted a necessary pathway for how local newsrooms can potentially revitalize our civic life and institutions.
The March 17 forum featured a slate of national media personalities, including the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Hedrick Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter previously with the New York Times, eloquently closed out the proceedings by noting the importance of this moment in time for our national fabric.
All of this media banter was backdropped by a surprisingly promising picture for journalism in Washington state’s northwest quadrant. This region has seen the recent launch of the Cascadia Daily News, which is providing a platform for new voices, perspectives, and stories. The Bellingham Herald, to its credit, has invested in areas of high local importance, including environmental and tribal topics. And online publications like the Salish Current are providing necessary depth and perspective to high-priority social and ecological issues facing our communities.
Can all of this activity serve as a blueprint for a way forward in the Pacific Northwest, and even nationally? As a country we have witnessed decades of declining investment in news institutions exacerbated by outdated business models. It is therefore exciting to see this renewal of journalistic interest, ambition, and financial commitment.
In the public sphere
One temptation is to position the entry of new media players, or the repositioning of existing ones, as part of a zero-sum industry game. But healthy media systems globally have often pointed to win-win outcomes when several news institutions push each other through democratic engagement and a deeper commitment to their audiences. The signs of reinvestment in our local news ecology represent the healthy expansion of a marketplace, but more importantly they signal the return of citizens to a public sphere where all voices might be heard and valued.
The healthy competition that emerges between regional newsrooms is bound to create a net benefit for readers but also for our democratic institutions given the uptick in civic reporting, media production, and real public engagement. In addition to robust journalistic activity and healthy competition, there is also opportunity for newsroom cooperation. How might we find venues for regional reporters, broadcasters, and digital media enterprises to work together in order to leverage their strengths and deliver on their respective missions? Furthermore, how can they collaborate with others in the Puget Sound region or across the border in British Columbia?
There is no doubt that this part of the world as a focus of news coverage is becoming more layered and complex, especially as it confronts unprecedented ecological, economic, and political shifts that are bound to transform our collective future.
Last November’s Nooksack River flooding and the consequences facing the borderland communities of northern Whatcom County and British Columbia’s eastern Fraser Valley provided a useful case in point. Recent stories about the flooding have seen regional journalists rise to the occasion with in-depth coverage ranging from the impacts on local tribal communities to the potential role of climate change; and from the devastation facing area farmers to the cross-border complexities of managing the Nooksack watershed.
What’s outside the bubble?
A crisis of this scope reminds us that we need more reporters on the ground telling the stories that matter to multiple constituencies, particularly those with hefty environmental and social ramifications. But for the sake of our region and the health of our communities we must reconnect our citizenry more fully to journalism institutions and vice versa.
Repairing an increasingly fractured relationship between the news media and the public they serve is easier said than done, however. Referring to this historic moment as a “time of plagues”, Hedrick Smith invoked our major contemporary challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic but also the hyper-partisanship that continues to derail our democratic norms. Journalism as a civic institution can lead the way to a better place, but only if it can help heal our social divisions and reach out to the disaffected and those who have been left behind.
As Smith argued, the key to re-establishing trust over the long haul is for newsrooms to listen to those outside of existing professional, social, and cultural bubbles. “What we really need if we are going to knit the community together and make it whole is to have some idea of what other people in the community think,” he said. “We need to begin to talk to each other and more importantly we need to begin to hear each other.”
— Contributed by Derek Moscato
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