Three women at Spokane City Hall have worked in newsrooms and know the importance of the free press, especially in the midst of a public health emergency.
“It’s imperative to help people get through a pandemic like this,” said Mayor Nadine Woodward, who after a 28-year career in TV journalism mounted a successful political run last year.
Woodward and City Councilwomen Candace Mumm and Lori Kinnear all said last week that their time as professional journalists heightened their awareness of the need for an independent media that has come somewhat under attack and lost the trust of some Americans during the current coronavirus outbreak, if not before. But they also stressed that reporters need to do their homework and carry a heavy responsibility, especially with many in the Inland Northwest turning to local media for accurate information about the pandemic.
“If you build trust in our audience over time, when it comes to a crisis like this and you’re reporting, that trust is going to carry over,” said Kinnear, who worked in public radio in Reno, Nevada, and freelance print journalism in Seattle before moving to Spokane.
It’s a trust that’s been on the decline even before the election of President Donald Trump, said Benjamin Shors, chairman of the Journalism and Media Production program at Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication. Shors also worked as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review.
“It’s a natural endpoint of a half century of work, going back to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Trump foundationally is following a playbook that’s been out there for a half century,” Shors said.
Mumm referred to Federal Communications Commission guidelines that were in place during part of her career at KXLY-TV as a crime reporter and managing editor. The FCC once had rules in place called “the fairness doctrine,” which required those broadcasting over public airwaves to give equal time to people on both sides of an issue. That rule was eliminated in 1987.
“I think that eroded a lot of trust in the media,” Mumm said. “You weren’t given that opportunity to hear other sides.”
Woodward said she didn’t like the “fake news” narrative, both when she was a journalist and now as a politician. Her focus during the pandemic has been to release information directly through the city, part of daily video chats that demonstrate what the city is doing and showing that municipal workers are navigating the same challenges as all Spokane citizens.
“I think accessibility to government and politicians is extremely important for journalists,” Woodward said. But, she noted, the city’s own messaging allows her to release information that may not make the nightly newscasts or the front page of the newspaper.
All three women said the communication between politicians and the public through the media has been vital since the start of the pandemic a month ago. The city recently held a telephone town hall with Woodward, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz and others to relay information about the virus and the city’s response.
Those who tuned in were polled about how they were receiving the majority of their information. Of the thousands who tuned in and then completed a survey, 53% said they were relying on TV news. Another 10% said newspaper, and 5% said radio. Social media accounted for only 8% of the responses.
“I think there’s this perception out there, certainly a lot of dialogue, that people are isolated and using technology, that platform as a way to engage,” Woodward said. “I was really glad to hear that people were getting their information from television and print.”
Woodward said government and media can work together to deliver accurate information.
“I think it’s very important that journalists don’t see politicians as the enemy, or government as the enemy,” Woodward said. “Government needs to act with transparency, I completely agree.”
“We need our media more than ever,” she continued. “But the media also needs to make a conscientious effort to make sure the information they are putting out there is accurate.”
Kinnear and Mumm agreed, and noted that producing accurate information is being done with news staffs that are far smaller than they used to be.
“I think it’s incredibly hard on the current size of the media because they’ve been pared down so much,” Mumm said. “This is the biggest story that’s probably ever going to happen in their careers. Trying to communicate what we need to know is difficult.”
Shors said it would be difficult for the industry to reach people who already distrust them for information, particularly those swayed by arguments that the media have a political bias. He doubted the impact of measures taken by some outlets, like tallying the number of false statements by the president, would have the desired effect on increasing trust in journalism.
“That kind of scorekeeping, if people don’t believe what you’re saying, and you say the president is inaccurate, it doesn’t really mean anything,” Shors said.
Politicians also have to respect what the press does, Mumm said, and recognize that their decisions and decision-making is going to be scrutinized.
“We all make mistakes, and whether it’s considered criticism or not, you sign up for that,” she said. “ You’re given the responsibility to do the right thing, and to have people asking questions about how you’re implementing their goals, their vision. I’m not offended by that.”
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