Jun 8 • 27M

Ep. 15: Trusting the News, Division in Journalism, David Carr's Self-cleaning Oven

Host Alex Ragir is joined by Jeffrey Dvorkin, Author of “Trusting the News," to talk about the "self-cleaning oven" of journalism, finding real news, a clash of cultures in the newsroom, and more...

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Hosted by entrepreneur and journalist Alex Ragir, Media Jungle breaks down the business behind the news industry and the creator economy, keeping you informed and entertained on the biggest issues and trends. New episodes every week.
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Here’s a transcript of this week’s episode:

Alex: Welcome to the Media Jungle video podcast. I’m your host, Alex Ragir, coming to you every week to break down the business behind the news industry, technology, and the creator economy. In this episode, we have Jeffrey Dvorkin, who wrote the book “Trusting the News in a Digital Age: Toward a ‘New’ News Literacy.

He's a long-time top journalist from CBC in Canada and former public editor for NPR.

Nobody Trusts the News

Nobody trusts the news. We have business model problems, misinformation, fake news. So many things in the mix and I always get the same question. People ask me: “Where do I find real news, and how can I be a good news consumer?” That's why we brought Jeffrey who has been studying this. What should I tell these people?

Jeffrey: I’d tell him to slow down for one thing. When I was teaching 18, 19 year olds and they were overwhelmed, they were really kind of drowning in stuff. It wasn't knowledge, it was just sort of an information flow. I described it as like taking a drink from a fire hose: You don't get a lot of liquid, you don't get a lot of sustenance, and it kind of rips your lips off. This has been part of the issue. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to kind of help these young people, and maybe some not so young people, figure out techniques for handling this tsunami of information that we see all the time. Whether it's [when we turn] on our smartphones, or we turn on our computers and then we go to a traditional media and see what's going on. The flow is constant. What's happened is that news organizations, which used to compete amongst themselves, are now competing with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. And so the idea of a news organization giving thoughtful, contextualized, edited information has disappeared, especially over the last few years as things have become much more frenzied and the politics everywhere -- not just in the United States, but in Canada, the UK, and now with the war in Ukraine -- people are really finding it hard to manage. And so what I decided to do was to help people understand that they need to slow down, be a little bit skeptical, and to check the sources. This to me is the critical point. If you can verify where the information comes from, then you're ahead of the game. And what we're seeing is that media organizations, even the responsible, respectable ones, are finding the economic system that they're in now [to be] very complicated [and] not very easy. There is a desire to see if they can find that missing audience that’s disappeared into the internet and to reassemble it somehow in order to resume the kind of profit margin that they enjoy 5 to 10 years ago.

Alex: And maybe we can even slow down and talk about what are the kinds of steps that a consumer should take to feel good about who they're reading or watching?

Jeffrey: Right. I think one of the things is that because so much information is now put on the internet, it's really important for consumers of information to look closely at who's doing the reporting. Is this a familiar name? Where does this information come from? Has the reporter, the media organization been really clear about how they got the story, who their sources were? Are they quoting anonymous sources? In which case there should be a good, stated reason why they're not identifying their sources. That's sort of the first level, the first way to triage the information as it's coming across to you. And if you're looking at the information online, go to the bottom of that homepage, scroll down, and see if you can find a link that says “about us” and click on that. That should tell you a lot about who's behind this information, where it's come from, and how you can contact someone if you want to have an opinion about what you've just consumed. I think that when you go to a website and there's no “about us,” then I think we have to kind of consider that this is a little bit skeptical, that we're in a kind of sketchy area, and we really need to take a step back and say “well, maybe we shouldn't be consuming this information.” We think that when we go to Google and we have a Gmail account, that we have made a deal with Google that we can use their email accounts. When in fact, we the consumers are now the product, Google needs us in a way more than we need Google or any of the others. Every time we go online, somebody knows a little bit more about us, who we are, what we're watching, what we're buying, [and] what we're consuming. A few months ago, when it was really cold here in Canada, I needed a new set of gloves for the winter. So, I went online and I found a pair and then suddenly I'm being flooded with ads for other gloves [laughs]. I only have a pair of hands. I think that this just shows you that they are tracking us all the time. I don't mean to sound paranoid, but the reality is that we live in what's called now a “surveillance society”; that somebody is watching everything we do, every time we go online, all the time. Most of the time, that's fine. Sometimes, it might not be so good.

Alex: So I look at websites sometimes, and [sometimes] someone sends me a website and I'm like, “oh, this is completely biased,” but it's sort of in my inherent brain because I was a journalist for so many years. Have you thought about how people can teach themselves how to see something [that’s] biased?

Jeffrey: Well, that's a really interesting question, and I'll be teaching a course on media ethics this summer at the University of Toronto, and one of the lectures I've just finished creating is “Is there good bias, and is there bad bias?” And of course there's good bias, in the sense that if you are a journalist and you think that we should be spending a little more time covering issues in rural communities and not just concentrate on the big cities. That's a bias, and in a way that's a good bias. A bad bias is when people say “I'm only going to look at stuff on the internet that confirms my suspicions,” and that's where we get into trouble. There's a lot of what the sociologists call bias confirmation: this is where people go online and only deal with ideas and people with whom they are familiar, supportive, and/or entertained. I mean, the difficulty now is that as media organizations, the so-called “responsible ones” try to provide the information that people need as citizens. And not just as consumers. This is where the trouble starts because media organizations, even the good ones, take a list of the people who have clicked on their website and they're selling that information to political parties, to survey groups, to pollsters, [and] anyone who will pay for it. And I think that this is now also part of the deal that we as citizens need to demand a better way in which media organizations handle our information that we have handed over to them for free and they're profiting from it.

Alex: Someone needs to be held accountable. That's a good segue into the next segment.

Self-Cleaning Oven

Self-cleaning oven. The late and great David Carr called the internet the “self-cleaning oven” of journalism, basically saying Twitter critics will keep journalists accountable. But who are these people on Twitter? Now the top editors from CNN and New York Times are telling their journalists to get off Twitter because it perpetuates the echo chamber where journalists are living in silos and becoming more and more radical. It is an oven, but who knows how well it cleans?

Jeffrey: When David said this, and I met him a few years ago, he came up to Toronto to speak to journalistic groups. He used that phrase and we thought “Oh, that's really clever.” But then when you think about it, I'm not sure that the internet works in that way. The theory is, and a lot of media managers believe this, and may still believe it as far as I know, that we don't need editorial smarts [but] the internet. There was a [meeting] in Toronto with the publishers of the three biggest newspapers in Canada: The Toronto Globe Mail, The Toronto Star, and Montreal’s La Presse. I asked them “What's the future of journalism now? Where do you see newspapers going,” and all three of them said “It's digital, digital, digital, and more digital.” And because they see it partly as a way to economize, to make their newsrooms operate more quickly [and] more efficiently. As a recovering news manager myself, I always thought “Well, how can we make sure that people are working not to overcapacity, but to their best capacity?” And so there was a time, maybe five, six years ago, and before that where news manager said, “You know that internet, this is going to be the way in which we can get rid of older, more expensive employees, hire younger people with digital smarts who can post stuff constantly because that's the way they live, and we'll be better for it.” And the problem [is that it] hasn’t proved to be true. The issue for media organizations is compounded because it's expensive to do news in a responsible way. You could put someone in a radio studio and have that person bloviate over a number of issues. It's much more expensive to create a foreign bureau covering the war in Ukraine. That is very expensive.

Alex: So you're sort of saying that in the beginning, when David Carr said that, it was sort of the idea that this plethora of different voices and thoughts on the internet would really be much better critics than having one or two very experienced journalists critique the coverage. But now we're basically having very young journalists who have not had all of that experience. On top of that, are then every day, getting sort of influenced by the people who are critiquing them. They're essentially influencing the coverage.

Jeffrey: That's exactly right. I think what we're seeing now is that news organizations have said “Okay, we need to do the right thing by our audiences. How do we do that?” Well, first of all, we have to hire young because young people know more than older people do. And then they can bring all of these digital skills into our news organization, that's going to be a good thing. And we want to hire young people who more accurately reflect the audiences, the public that we serve. [Many] news organizations have done a great job in the 1980s and 1990s in hiring more women, when there were accusations that news organizations were full of older white men. They said, “You're right, let's hire more women,” and more women were hired. And now they've come into a level of managerial excellence. A lot of news organizations, not all of them, but a lot of them are now run by women. What's happened more recently is that the idea of having a more diverse newsroom; a more diverse media organization, where you have journalists of color, you have issues around gender and sexuality, and the idea that these young people will bring a new way of perceiving journalism. A lot of news organizations have become much more diverse, which is a very good thing. But, and here's the interesting thing for me anyway: Older managerial cohort believes that journalism is not a profession, it's still a craft. You come into a newsroom, you're a young person, you learn the skills you learn what the culture of the places you do, you have a lot of really lousy shifts, you do stories that you're being handed by your assignment editor. And eventually, you reach a level of competence where you feel comfortable asserting your own editorial judgment inside the news organization. Young people now are saying, “I'm not going to wait for that. I'm here. I've got a degree from Columbia or the University of Toronto, and you're not listening to me. I have ideas about what is important for the people that I know about.” So we have a generation gap, inside many news organizations where you have the older managerial class saying, “Be patient, you'll learn, and you'll be fine.” And we have this younger cohorts, who some of them call themselves “resistance journalists,” because they're not willing to wait. They want their reality now, and so they're pushing very strongly for it. And it's creating a little tension inside news organizations. I’ll give you one example: The Toronto star, which is a kind of liberal newspaper in Toronto, been around for 150 years, [has] a long tradition of social justice, et cetera, et cetera. And very much part of the Methodist church tradition; not that they were openly religious, but they had that kind of social awareness. [They’ve] been very good about hiring people, especially young people, and a diverse newsroom exists at the Toronto Star. For the federal elections in Canada, the Toronto Star has what they call editorial boards; where they invite the leaders of the parties, there are four or five and two or three of them are significant. They always invite the leaders to come to an editorial board meeting at the Toronto Star. It's open, everything's on the record, and it's open to anyone at the Toronto Star to come in and throw questions at the leaders. So the prime minister came, the leader of the opposition, the head of the conservative party came, the head of the socialist party came, and then they invited a new, more right-wing anti-immigration party called The People's Party of Canada. There are some residents here in America as well. The leader of that party was invited in and he came to the editorial board and the young journalists at the Toronto Star boycotted that meeting because they said, “We’re not going to give this guy any oxygen. We think he's a racist, we think he's anti-immigrant, and we're not going to sit in the same room with him.” And the older editorial managers said, “Well wait a minute, your job as journalists is also to engage with ideas and with people with whom you may disagree.” And so boycotting doesn't work. Anyway, to me, that was a moment of truth, the moment of Zen as it were, that The Toronto star suddenly acknowledged the fact that there are two cultures struggling inside the newsroom for oxygen themselves. It's a very complicated situation, and it's not just at The Toronto star. The New York Times has had these problems, NPR has had these problems, and The Wall Street Journal has had these problems.

Alex: Yeah, it’s wearing your bias on your sleeve.

Jeffrey: Well, yeah. And as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in “The Elements of Journalism”: Journalists should not leave their conscience at the door when they come into work. Their conscience [and] their awareness should inform their journalism, but not deform their journalism. How do you strike that balance? That's one of the things that I've been engaging with my students about; how do you balance your powerful belief in something, yet do it in a way that is fair to your audience. That to me is the critical choice.

Alex: Yeah. That moves into our next segment.

Verifying The News

Verifying the news. By the time you figure out a story, the Internet's already onto the next one. And by the time it's verified, you have another story, and another story, then this one, until you forgot about all of them. It's like the Churchill quote: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on. I didn't verify he really said that, but.

Jeffrey: What Churchill said is that the truth is so rare, that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. That was war time. You raise a really interesting issue, which is how do you provide responsible, contextual journalism at a time when you’re being inundated with information from all sources. And I think that one of the issues is that until news organizations figure out a way that they can spend money in a better way. They need to make money, there's no question about that, but they need to also understand that their ultimate responsibility is to their readers, viewers, and listeners. When Bill Keller was editor-in-chief at The New York Times in the early 2000s, he made an announcement that they've got enough money that they're going to hire dozens more journalists, editors, and reporters. As soon as he made the announcement, the share value of the New York times on the stock exchange dropped because the money was not going to the shareholders, it was going back into the newsroom. And I think that it's only got only gotten worse since then. What we need to figure out is can news organizations not just go to the bottom of the barrel for news, fill the “news hole” as it's called, and to provide information that is both important and interesting. I'm not saying that we have to do a lot of stories about the price of wheat, but if we could do stories about how the price of groceries has gone up everywhere, and people are finding this to be appalling, that's the story we do. Not just the price of wheat.

Alex: It's interesting that you mentioned Bill Keller, he's at The Marshall Project now, a nonprofit investigative organization. Is that the direction people should go, or where do you see the best mix? How can you do that when you have the realities of the market in America? Almost half of the newspapers are owned by hedge funds and private equity groups that are known to cut costs. They don't care about the future of democracy.

Jeffrey: It's interesting. We're having that discussion in Canada now because there are a lot of “news deserts” outside of Toronto and Montreal. That there is a kind of an impoverishment of information in much of the country, and the same is true in the United States. One of the things that I think is going to be interesting is to find ways in which standalone independent journalistic organizations can partner and provide content to mainstream media organizations. So that Bill Keller's group needs to figure out a way that they can partner, provide content, serve the public in a much broader way, and see if that works. In Canada, the CBC [the public broadcaster in Canada] is the largest single news organization in the country. And if ratings are a guide, it's doing terrible. What's happened is that there's this terrific news gathering organization that doesn't seem to be serving the public as it once did. So, there are a lot of ways that we need to “unscramble the egg” as it were, and figure out better ways of providing information that is local, because there's a real dearth of local information, And in fact, there's such thin information at the local level because it's so expensive. So that news organizations are relying on what I call the “low hanging fruit” of local news, which is weather, traffic, and crime. Now you need that information, but that's not all you need. So how do we make sure the landscape, that the media environment [is] richer, and that's going to be the challenge for the next generation; for you guys. I've done my bit to screw up the screw up the media, so now it's your turn. I'm serious. What I tell my students is, “You guys get out there, get a job, and then ask your bosses, ‘Is this the best way to do it? Can we do it any better?’” And that's going to be the challenge. And I think I've created a whole bunch of radicals in various newsrooms [laughs] in and around North America in my students [that] are going in there and saying to their bosses, “Why are we doing it this way?” Not to be jerks or negative Nellies, but just to say that there must be a better way of doing this. One of my students, who came from Uganda actually, got a position on the website of the CBC. Pretty good gig. And his supervisor said to them, “I want you to go on YouTube, find something that's vaguely Canadian, write some copy around it, and then we'll put it up on our website.” And he said, “Why don't we do the story ourselves?” And they said, “Oh, we leave that to other broadcasters.” The pressure in newsrooms now to fill that “news hole” is so profound, and it's damaging journalism and damaging democracy.

Alex: Anyone watching right now, make sure to like subscribe, share, follow the Substack, send me an email so we can get together, figure out how to “unscramble the egg”, or “re-scramble the egg.” If you want to find Jeffrey's book, it's called “Trusting the News in a Digital Age: Toward a ‘New’ News Literacy.” Thank you so much, Jeffrey for taking the time out of your day.

Jeffrey: It was my pleasure guys, really. I appreciate it. I miss the United States. I became a US citizen while I lived in Washington and I know things are complicated now, but I miss the turmoil of journalism in the United States. It's really vital, and I think you guys do an important job.

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