Even as turbulent pre-election media activity around the midterms recedes, many voters still find themselves awash in an all-too-familiar sea of questionable information.
In Whatcom County as elsewhere, polarizing information mixes with deep ideological divides among rural conservatives and urban progressives, resulting in growing and equally divisive mistrust of news media.
That is a deep concern for news professionals such as Joan Connell, a journalist specializing in religion, ethics and moral issues who teaches media ethics and narrative journalism at Western Washington University.
Society has become so engulfed by misinformation and intentional disinformation that, for many people, it has become very difficult to sort out true from false, opinion from fact, relevant from irrelevant, signal from noise, Connell said.
“Democracy itself hangs in balance,” she said. “With the printing press came the idea of a marketplace of ideas, where we could talk about and work on our issues. That’s not happening now.”
An increasing mistrust of news media was among findings in a 2021 survey by the Edelman Trust Initiative looking at the failing trust ecosystem eroding public life locally and globally, Connell noted.
“In a world in which news organizations, social media and streaming platforms are bombarding us with content, people find it hard to differentiate the truth from a tsunami of random content, most of which is not guided by journalistic ethics,” she said. “One of the saddest findings of that survey to me, as a journalist, is that a majority of people surveyed viewed news media as both corrupt and incompetent.”
Distrust on all sides
Whatcom County is served by several professional nonprofit and for-profit news organizations that attempt to overcome divisive political rhetoric with high-quality journalism. While local news sources are seen as more trustworthy than national, local journalists still find themselves confronted by distrust.
Ralph Schwartz, local government reporter for Cascadia Daily News, said he has encountered distrust of his work from both ends of the political spectrum in his 14 years as a journalist.
While at the Bellingham Herald, Schwartz was criticized by progressive readers for his reporting on the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point that was ultimately not built.
“I was accused of being in bed, figuratively, with the coal terminal interests … [when] I didn’t outright report that this coal terminal was going to be a terrible thing for Whatcom County,” Schwartz said. “I think that’s what they saw my job as being. But that’s not what I saw my job as being.”
Schwartz’s coverage included explaining why Wyoming coal interests wanted the terminal to happen, why certain people thought it would bring jobs to the county, and what the environmental risks were. For some people, he said, none of this context was enough to change their opinions of his work.
2021 Pew Research Center survey data shows that, among Republicans, 46% of surveyed adults said they had a “great deal of trust” in the political news they received from their main news source, when they considered that source to not be mainstream. With Republicans who considered their main source to be mainstream, that number plummeted to 24%.
On the Democratic side, 53% of those surveyed found a mainstream source to be highly trustworthy, with just 34% viewing their non-mainstream sources to be.
Amplified by social media
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter amplify distrust towards journalism, Schwartz said. “There’s no filter any more for truth. It’s just kind of anarchy.”
About a decade ago, social media was championed as providing everyone a voice, by removing traditional media gatekeepers, Schwartz said. While it was supposed to be a good thing, that’s not necessarily how things have turned out.
“I’d kind of like to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “I think gatekeepers are a good thing. I think people who are trained—and paid—to suss out the truth play a valuable role. But people are turning to Facebook for all their news and information. So, we’re at a huge disadvantage.”
Nearly a third of U.S. adults say they regularly get news via Facebook, 2022 Pew survey data show. And in just two years, the share of U.S. adults who regularly receive news through TikTok has tripled to about 10%.
Perhaps most tellingly, a recent Pew survey found that almost half of 18- to 29-year-olds are now almost as likely to trust information from social media sites as they are from national news outlets.
Many high schools are attempting to increase media literacy with curricula on how to think critically about information.
Erika Thorsen, a longtime teacher at Squalicum High School, offers an elective media studies course. She created the course, she said, to help students learn critical analysis skills when consuming information.
“I want students to understand that issues are far more complex than can be conveyed in a meme or a ‘gotcha’ sound bite,” she said. “I also want them to distinguish news events, like a car accident, weather or a celebrity scandal, from enduring issues, such as poverty or resource conflict.”
Thorsen starts with the basic skill of distinguishing news from opinion, and shares the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics—which many students are surprised to learn exists.
With new, increasingly complex technologies adding even more layers to what being “media literate” means, Thorsen is concerned about the future. When she began teaching the course in 2017, she wasn’t worried about things like deep fake videos.
“Even people who are well-versed in this subject sometimes have to put their skills to the test to trace information and suss out the truth,” she said. “Too many students, and adults, just don’t have the patience or the time to do this with every piece of information.”
The average student’s media habits, she added, are pulling them in the wrong direction. An environment of rapid-fire scrolling and superficial amounts of time spent with emotionally triggering content are not ideal for developing brains.
“We need people capable of tackling complex topics that require focus and in-depth investigation,” she said. “I don’t how much my media studies class can combat ‘TikTok brain,’ but I’m trying.”
Craig Johnson, principal of Lynden Christian High School, said seniors at LCHS engage with media literacy curriculum, while freshman students discuss digital citizenship in a technology class.
When it comes to the effect of social media, Johnson said he sees it as a progression of natural behavioral tendencies.
“Rumors and innuendo are nothing new to human nature,” he said.
One thing he does see as having changed is the way people define language. Charged terms like “racist” or “prejudice,” he said can worsen attempts at level-headed discussion if they are used in too fluid a manner.
“I think we’re seeing some of that,” he said. “That doesn’t help communication.”
Bob Woodward, who with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein famously broke open the Watergate scandal of 1972, observed in a phone interview that while the internet has sped up the news cycle, it’s also fostered impatience.
These days, Woodward is writing books and his deadlines flex as needed, unlike his days of meeting daily news deadlines. He contends that extra time for deeper reporting is something modern journalism could benefit from.
The follow-up story is another crucial element of good journalism, he said. During one of Woodward’s first Post stories, he wrote about four children killed in a residential fire. Afterward, an editor asked if there were any building code violations where the fire had taken place. Woodward looked into it; there were.
Woodward said he continues to maintain good journalism practice.
“No one has ever called me to a grand jury,” he said. “The FBI has never come and asked me about my work. I put it out there, and try to be [transparent]—names, dates, places, documentation—and people can follow that. It means, professionally, everything.”
Julia Lerner, CDN’s environmental reporter, said she believes a newsroom’s ability to connect with its community through event coverage and transparent engagement is critical to establishing trust.
“Just being present, people know who we are, people trust us a little bit more,” she said. People may come to understand that her sole goal is “to understand their story, understand their perspectives.”
For Schwartz, working to present both sides of a story—provided the voices in those stories don’t stray into the world of conspiracy theories—is central to his work.
In 2019, he worked at the Methow Valley News in Twisp, in a readership area populated by multigeneration ranch families alongside Westside newcomers with second homes in the valley.
“I heard continuously that our paper was terrible because it was owned by a liberal Seattle person,” Schwartz said.
Nevertheless, he worked at listening to both sides, and in time was told he was doing a good job by both conservative and progressive community members.
“That’s when I feel like I’m doing my job well, when I’m striking that balance of making sure that both sides … are being heard,” Schwartz said.
For a journalist, that means checking one’s biases at the newsroom door, he added.
“I take that seriously,” he said. “It’s important to go out of your way to be fair to all involved in whatever story you’re writing.”
A University of Washington study conducted last summer in Whatcom County by the college’s Center for an Informed Public, in partnership with Salish Current and library cooperative OCLC, added context to levels of trust in local organizations.
Nearly three dozen local journalists, educators and librarians took part in a survey and series of focus groups, said Rachel Moran, who led the study.
Community distrust, she said, seems to stem mostly from the polarized national political climate. Journalists were by far the most distrusted, followed by educators and then librarians.
However, Moran said her preliminary results indicate reason for hope. Many participants cited the trust fostered through local relationships as a reason why they were trusted as much as they were.
Focus group conversations gave particular hope that younger populations, who tend to be more tech-savvy to begin with, can better navigate the complexity of modern media literacy.
“The concerns really lie in older adult populations,” she said. “How do we equip people with media literacy skills who are no longer in continuing education? Because then it has to be their choice. We have to find more creative and compelling ways to get a population to sit down and think about media literacy.”
While no one knows what the future holds, Schwartz said, he hopes that people of different backgrounds and ideologies can sit down, talk with each other, and communicate their differences productively.
In Whatcom County, that might look like rural and conservative mayors, council people and business owners sitting down with their urban and progressive counterparts at actual tables, in person. Local media outlets could potentially host or moderate the sessions, he added, perhaps using specific prompts as jumping off points.
In the Methow Valley, Schwartz said, he observed people basically getting along despite their differing views. He’d like to see more of that.
“When there’s a fire or another disaster or emergency in that community, everyone has each other’s back,” he said. “That’s what it means to be part of a community. Social media has taken us away from that, and we need more face-to-face interactions, even if they have to be manufactured a little bit, or we have to go out of our way to schedule them.”
—Reported by Matt Benoit
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