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SHELLA: Good journalism needed now more than ever

February 11, 2017

Shella
May you live in interesting times.

It’s a phrase sometimes quoted at the Statehouse, one used in a famous speech by Robert Kennedy. It’s often identified as an ancient Chinese curse.

Scholars dispute the origin. Regardless, I submit that we are currently experiencing the most interesting of times and it’s certainly not a blessing.

President Donald Trump is on Twitter attacking The New York Times and The Washington Post for creating what he calls “fake news.” The two trusted and respected news outlets are being used as examples so that Trump supporters will question everyone in the media and what they report.

Top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway is going on the Sunday morning news programs to demand that TV networks fire reporters who are biased, in her view, because they question her use of “alternative facts.”

White House adviser Steve Bannon declares that the media should, “Keep its mouth shut!” (We know he said that, by the way, because the media reported it.)

Others in the Trump administration have declared the media to be the opposition party, and there has been talk of ejecting reporters from their White House workspace. Skype seats are available at press briefings so that media outlets more friendly to the administration can take part. Never mind their bias.

All this goes against tradition, but it also has the potential to change the way politicians at all levels deal with the media—and how the media deals with them.

As a political reporter, I am often asked to speak about how the media works to groups that include the Lugar Series, the Agricultural Leadership Institute, freshman lawmakers, General Assembly staff and others. I tell them most reporters are biased only in favor of a good story.

I was recently asked to share with a newly elected statewide officeholder. I stressed building relationships with members of the media, keeping in mind that there will always be tension.

I pointed out that a news conference is not always the best way to deliver a message, especially if the topic is sensitive, maybe a scandal of some sort. In that event, it would be helpful to be able to pick up the phone and call a trusted reporter and share your side of the story before the public makes up its collective mind based on sensational facts disclosed elsewhere.

That’s difficult in a world where the media is your enemy.

I also said that it’s important to be on Twitter. That’s the 21st century water cooler where political discussions take place. I even pointed to Donald Trump as an example of how to be genuine on Twitter. Being factual is just as important, however.

And I pointed out that the role of the media is changing constantly. With Facebook Live, voters can now watch news conferences. They need context, and fewer and fewer of them are getting it because they rely on social media and the 140 characters that give no perspective.

A politician can help a reporter do that.

There are 65 million people on Twitter, 50 million on Facebook.

Yet the media is not going away and it’s not backing down. Remember, it was reporting by The Washington Post that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. They are Post reporters who were labeled as enemies.

America needs good journalism.

Meanwhile, there’s another Statehouse phrase that we should all keep in mind: Elections have consequences.•

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Shella hosted WFYI’s Indiana Week in Review for 25 years and covered Indiana politics for WISH-TV for more than three decades. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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