All posts by geneva.overholser@gmail.com

Can we have a better sexual-harassment conversation?

Boy, is this ever a moment: Sexual harassment has come out of the dark.  That’s a great thing. But it’s worrisome. too. The conversations – and the events – are raging like wildfire on terrain that is utterly unfamiliar. Could we think about some guidelines to keep things as fair and truthful as possible? Some considerations to help us generate more light and less heat?

Here are four possibilities:

  1. Accusations should not be anonymous. We should do everything we can (I’m looking at you, fellow journalists) to encourage the people who make sexual harassment accusations to do so under their own names. This honors a longtime journalistic commitment to render information verifiable and to prevent people from harming others with impunity. It’s a good rule for society to follow more broadly. There will be exceptions on this difficult topic (several women making credible claims together anonymously against a very powerful public man?) but the fewer the exceptions, the more progress we’ll make. The fact that so many women have been willing to go on the record lately is an enormous part of why we are where we are today.
  1. Not all sins are equivalent. The term sexual harassment seems to be stretching to cover an awful lot of ground: From a wink and a whistle, through an uncomfortable conversation or an unwelcome kiss, to an erection pressed against you, having your breasts grabbed or a hand thrown under your skirt – all the way up to sexual assault. Throwing all offenders together is unfair and inaccurate. It is essential that we get as close as we can to the truth of each report, uncomfortable as the details may be.
  1. Consider a statute of limitations for minor offenses. A guy who brushed his hand against you in the wrong place 30 years ago may still be messing around years later, or he may not be. You didn’t report it then, times have changed, the culture has changed. Sharing experiences (as in the #metoo social media exchanges lately) is valuable in raising awareness about how common harassment is. But an expiration date for shining the light individually on a man whose sins are minor and lost in time may be in order.
  1. Men need to help in sorting all this out. This is surely not just a women’s issue; in fact, it’s really much more of a men’s issue. That these conversations are happening is great, but they can’t be just among women. We’ll all be much better off with men involved.

(I should note here that I do understand that men prey on men, women on women and some women on men. I’m employing language that is too narrow. But I’ll leave that guideline for someone else’s contribution.)

 

How the media lost the public’s trust — and how they’ll earn it back

(Note: I wrote this post for LinkedIn, with whom I did a video interview on these topics)

A tangle of questions troubles journalists these days: Why are we so distrusted? Can we survive the loss of the advertising that supports us? How do we stand up against the control that behemoths like Facebook and Google have over our futures? And what do we do about the growing assaults on truth telling from bots and hackers, viral deception and foreign meddling – let alone our own president?

I want to add this to the tangle: How can we bring these questions to you? And how can we bring you into the discussions? I want to do this because I worry that, unless journalism matters to the people it exists to serve, it may not exist at all for long. So, if you think that being able to count on a fundamentally reliable supply of information in the public interest is critical to you and to our democracy, here are four things I’d ask you to think about:

  1. Journalists increasingly (I could add, belatedly) understand that we need to do a better job of serving the public’s needs. There are scores of efforts underway to get at the question of how to win the public trust. Some are focused on being more transparent or more inclusive of different viewpoints and voices. Others emphasize listening better and engaging with their communities in creating the news. There is a recommitment to ensuring that journalism is fair, balanced, verifiable and proportional, as well as a new awareness that we must focus not just on what goes wrong, but on the equally newsworthy (and hope-inspiring) things that go right. Perhaps most important, there is a growing understanding that we must direct our fast dwindling resources toward watchdogging government and business, probing the dark corners of poverty and injustice, and providing the basic information needed for effective citizenship.
  2. You – Mr. and Ms. Public – also have a responsibility, one that is unfamiliar to most: to be the curators of your own media diet. Until recently, news simply came to you (for free or cheaply), and you received it. Nobody felt the need to teach her kid how to be mindful of seeking the balanced diet that would produce civic health, choosing what was best for her, demanding better when it didn’t satisfy. Now that the top-down model is gone, it’s little wonder that we live in a chaotic world of half-truths and worse, or that we have trouble figuring out what information came from where — whether the author was a trustworthy source or a kid in Macedonia making a buck off our gullibility. All of us now shape our common news world through the choices we make about what to read or watch or view – and about what we write or share or like. But few of us understand how potent that responsibility is.
  3. If news is going to survive, it will be because the public views it as a civic good, a democratic necessity, and thus is willing to support it. We know that education is essential to a self-governing people, so we fund public schools. We know that human beings need art, so we pony up for admission. Our journalism has long been paid for by advertisers – you, the reader/viewer/listener were the product, not the customer, which made things run effectively but also had some unfortunate aspects, such as disconnecting journalists from readers. Now that advertising tied to news is collapsing, and unlikely ever to return to its previously vigorous state, someone is going to have to pay for this often costly thing that is original journalism. Philanthropy has a role (community foundations, for example, as well as wealthy individuals), and we are already seeing it come into play. But I am convinced that the best journalism will be the journalism that is supported in substantial part by those whom it serves.
  4. Journalists’ failures, and the public’s obliviousness to the challenges, have contributed to the parlous state of news today. But there are other potent forces arrayed against the public’s ability to receive a reliable and fair-minded news report. Powerful critics, backed by individuals of enormous wealth who feel inconvenienced by a free and independent press, seek to weaken it. Intrusions from other nations, as well as individuals making money off falsehoods and deceptions, thrive in the largely human-judgment-free zones of our social-media platforms. Facebook and Google may at long last have acknowledged that they are indeed in the business of providing information – along with the viral deception that infests it – but their responses to date are baby steps. Meanwhile, they sap advertising from traditional journalism organizations, and strip them of their ability to project their own brands – a huge challenge to building trust (not to mention to building an economic model). Extremist publications, poor in truth but rich in demagoguery, render the essential democratic necessity of coming together around common facts a near impossibility. These forces, arrayed against the time-honored notion that “the truth will out,” are not sufficiently understood. And they are far from being adequately addressed.

It’s clear that Americans widely distrust institutions generally, and media organizations in particular. And we seem intent on dividing bitterly along partisan lines, putting our faith (such as it is) in different news sources. So maybe an appeal to join in a common effort seems doomed. But I’m talking about something well beyond today’s dissatisfying landscape. What if you truly felt that there was no source of information that you could rely on to sort fact from fiction? No one to turn to, in a disaster, to find out what really happened? No source you trusted to certify a quote, or a death toll, or determine whether your city council had passed a law that will change your life?

Such a situation is far from unimaginable today. Indeed, I think I can see it on the horizon. And the main thing standing between now and that looming possibility is whether the public begins to see it, too.

 

Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

People will be parsing this election for years to come. Here’s one thing I know: Journalism failed us badly. Since we are going to need good journalism more than ever in the days ahead, I offer some thoughts about what went wrong:

  1. The bottomless well of Trump coverage early on. This is mostly attributable to cable, but it was true of television more broadly, and it influenced print and online media as well.

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I included this chart from the New York Times in my March 28 blogpost: A tough test for Journalism and the Midterm Grades Aren’t Good.

As the Times story said, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

Of this development, CBS Chairman Les Moonves famously said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  Here’s what else he said: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

He did. So did they.

Continue reading Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

A terrible loss for journalism, as Gwen Ifill dies at 61

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Gwen came out to Los Angeles to receive the 2011 National Cronkite Award at USC.  The  judges (I was honored to be among them) cited her (and her co-winner Judy Woodruff) for election coverage “focusing on the issues, talking with real voters and letting the candidates explain themselves,” adding that “they avoided the horserace component that is so typical in political coverage.”

How powerful those words feel now, at this moment of loss.

 

 

 

More lessons from civic journalism for today’s disengaged media

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Democracy Fund has published a white paper I wrote: “How to Best Serve Communities: Reflections on Civic Journalism.”  I conclude that “today’s engaged journalism, civic journalism’s replacement in this digital age, enjoys an utterly different environment from the one that confronted civic journalists — one in which disruption prevails, change is the new constant, and innovation is seen, almost universally, as essential. The contemporary movement is landing on far more fertile terrain.”

DF’s Paul Waters blogged about it here, saying:  “Our belief is that this reorientation of local journalism towards engaged journalism is critical to fostering a thriving journalism landscape and a more engaged democracy.”

Making Journalism Indispensable

Last week, I was part of a national conference https://sustainlocal2016.sched.org/ on journalism sustainability convened by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Our panel was asked to begin with an overview of the state of local-news sustainability.

Having no particular expertise regarding the mix of revenue streams everyone is testing these days, I decided to focus on what I think lies at the heart of the question: the public. Whatever happens with advertising and subscriptions, events, membership or repurposing of content, I’m convinced that a key to survival will be a public willingness to support journalism. We must come to see information in the public interest as we do the arts or education – as a civic good, one we are responsible for sustaining.

This is no small challenge, since we’ve trained the public for years to believe that the news comes to them for free — or really cheap. You turned on the TV, or you plunked down your quarter for the paper, and you never really thought about the fact that advertisers were paying the bill. This means that we are going to have to make our work so important, so engaging, that people will feel they can’t do without it.

In other words, we’ve got to make our journalism indispensable. Here are a few thoughts I shared with the journalists at the conference about how to go about it:

— Be IN and OF your community.   When I started as a cub reporter at the Colorado Springs SUN, the editor and publisher wrote a column published on the front page. As a newly minted Medill master’s graduate, I found this unorthodox custom disquieting. But it surely worked for the readers, who sensed the editor’s engagement with the community. Later, when I became editor of the Des Moines Register, we kept alive the paper’s historic tradition of running our cartoon on the front page. Register cartoonists had won two Pulitzers over the years; more important, they’d won the hearts of Iowans. In particular, the Sunday cartoons, poking fun at the state and its residents, made it clear that we were all in this together.

— At the same time, we need to remember our leadership role. We are not, as journalists, just seeking to be part of the kaffeeklatsch. We are leading a conversation. I remember focus groups at the Register in which, at the end, a reader would say, “Well, you’re the editors. Help us see what you think is possible.” It’s not a return to the old top-down model that I’m recommending here, but rather engaging in ways that broaden and deepen the community, making it more inclusive and ensuring that people discover things they don’t know.

— We need to be honest about who we are and what we’re attempting to do. The hardest voice I ever had to write in was the editorial voice of The New York Times, when I served on its editorial board. People don’t respond easily to disembodied voices. Amid today’s endless debates about objectivity, I’m struck by the power of the view espoused by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. They believe that their journalists should be, first and foremost, AUTHENTIC — a quality that is essential if they are to cultivate the rich relationship with readers that the organization seeks.

— Keep in mind that HOPE may be bigger news today than disaster. In this era of cynicism and division, we need a journalism that helps people understand that solutions are possible and government can work. Journalism is supposed to provide an accurate picture of the world around us, but ours has looked pretty lopsided for years. This is not about softball questions or happy-talk stories: Good journalism creates community through a common understanding of accurate information – the good as well as the bad.

— We must remember that we are most effective when we reach people through their hearts as well as their brains. We’ve always known that good writing and powerful photography were key to our success. We have so many more tools today for engaging people and making lasting connections. Elizabeth Alexander closed her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” by asking “…and are we not of interest to each other?” In recent years, journalism has done as much to distance us from one another as it has to connect us. Our future now may rest on our ability to correct that course.

 

Civic Journalism, Engaged Journalism: Tracing the Connections

Geneva Overholser's photo
By Geneva Overholser / 2016 August 3rd

“Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them.” That’s the headline on Liz Spayd’s debut as the New York Times’ new public editor. That she devoted her first column to the need to pay attention to readers’ views shows how central the idea of engagement has become for journalists.

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Please see article as published by the Democracy Fund.

 

 

It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

The New York Times’s new public editor worried recently that the paper is perceived as liberal; she advised trying to address that problem. Like NPR’s bid to shed the “liberal-media” epithet by shedding Vivian Schiller, like Walter Isaacson’s attempts to cleanse CNN of it by paying a visit to Trent Lott, this is doomed to fail. Thanks in no small part to Roger Ailes.

Ailes, when he set out to create a cable network with a point of view, was clearly filling a market need. But his real brilliance lay in the motto he chose: “Fair and balanced.” The outlet designed to serve conservatives was inoculated at birth from charges of bias by claiming that it alone was free of that taint.

A few years into Fox News’s existence — on the occasion of an award being given to Fox’s leading newsman, Brit Hume — I suggested a public discussion about the merits of this new (for the U.S.) kind of journalism, The Washington media were so dog-whipped by the “liberal-media” lashings that nobody wanted to own up to noticing that Fox was conservative. But the reticence protected no one. The “liberal-media” accusations have only grown, as the public editor’s column reminds us.

Continue reading It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

Election 2016: A tough test for journalism, and the midterm grades aren’t good

The 2016 presidential campaign is handing journalism an extraordinary challenge: How to deal with so many remarkable developments — a mold-breaking Republican front-runner, a former first lady in the lead for the Democrats, an extremely volatile electorate — all at a time of disruption for news organizations.

Given the importance of this election, trying to figure out what is happening in time for some mid-course correction feels critical. Toward that goal, here are a few thoughts about some of the factors at play:


1. All Trump, much of the time.

The catnip of Donald Trump’s candidacy has been irresistible to the media, resulting in coverage that is unprecedentedly cockeyed. As a recent New York Times article put it, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

This chart, from the Times article, shows how utterly out-of-whack Trump’s “free-media” coverage has been:

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This constant coverage – even of the outrages (maybe especially of the outrages, in Trump’s case) — has undeniably served to elevate him above all others.
Continue reading Election 2016: A tough test for journalism, and the midterm grades aren’t good

The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

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As part of the University at Buffalo’s International Education Week, I gave a keynote address about what’s happening in the media world today — what we’re losing, what we’re gaining, and what the students ought to do about it.  I urged the students to “seize the opportunity to make contributions.  And take responsibility for the contributions you make.”

Here is the text:

University at Buffalo, International Education week, November 2015

“The Media Revolution: What It Means for You”

It’s a pleasure for me to be here as part of International Education Week. And I’m especially delighted that you have made media your focus. Nothing could be more essential to an understanding of this fast-globalizing world than media.

You know, we say that we are what we eat. More generally, we are what we consume. And that surely goes for media. Our media diet, like our food diet, shapes us every day – for good and for ill. If we select wisely, we nourish ourselves and contribute to good health. If we choose junk, we pay for it. Moreover, our society pays for it. Just as the nation’s health and economy are affected when people eat poorly, our democracy is undermined when people fail to nourish their understanding of the world around them. A government of the people, by the people and for the people is only as good as the thinking and participation OF the people. A democracy of know-nothings will get what it deserves: poor public policy, an inability to progress, a loss of international standing. You, individually, are part of the recipe for good health – for yourself, and for the society of which you are a part.

Continue reading The Media Revolution: What It Means for You