Chris Ison, University of Minnesota
Public policy and news organizations
must find better ways
to convey public policy issues
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview April 8, 2016
John Adams, Steve Anderson, Heather Bandeen, Dave Broden (vice
chair), Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Chris Ison,
Dan Loritz (chair), Bill Rudelius, Dana Schroeder (associate
director), Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Janis Clay, Sallie
Kemper (associate director).
organizations have given up much of their role in setting the
news order of the day, says University of Minnesota School of
Journalism and Mass Communication Associate Professor Chris Ison.
A former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Star Tribune,
he notes that people getting their news online are empowered to
read the way they want to. With news media websites listing the
most-read stories of the day, the media are allowing the public
on the website to set the day's news agenda. And he believes
that agenda is not the way most editors would order the stories.
Ison asserts that it's hard to take
complex stories and make them interesting to people. He says
newspapers are reluctant to go deep and spend substantial
resources and space to understand issues the public is reluctant
to invest its time in, like how state funding is distributed to
school districts. News media are tracking how many people click
on their stories and how many people are watching or listening
to their news on any given day. He notes, though, that news
organizations do sometimes pick certain issues and go in-depth
He believes that both public-policy
and news organizations have to find better ways to tell stories
about complex public-policy issues. One way to make a story
about school funding more accessible, he says, would be to find
people affected by changes in school funding and tell their
stories. Another tactic is to explain things visually, using
graphics that are digestible.
Ison states that reporters are looking
for background data on policy issues and that public-policy
organizations don't do enough to provide information reporters
can use. He advises these organizations that if they want to
tell stories that journalists will run, they must simplify
things and find a way to break some news. It must be news the
public cares about. And it's not good enough, he says, to raise
problems without also raising solutions. Reporting that someone
or some organization is doing really well at solving a problem
makes an interesting story.
Chris Ison is associate
professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at
the University of Minnesota. He was assistant managing editor
for investigative projects at the Star Tribune in
Minneapolis from 2001 to 2004. He was a reporter on the Star
Tribune's investigative team and also covered federal
agencies, casinos and local government. He also covered state
politics, local government, police and courts for the Duluth
News Tribune from 1983 to 1986.
Ison and fellow reporter Lou Kilzer
won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1990 for a
series of stories on arson and links between the St. Paul Fire
Department and profits from arsons and suspicious fires. His
stories have won various national and state awards, including
awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the National
Press Club, the Associated Press and other organizations. He
supervised projects that won national awards from the Society of
American Business Editors and Writers and the Society of
Professional Journalists. He is co-author of the book Media
Ethics Today: Issues, Analysis, Solutions.
Ison teaches courses in news reporting
and writing, investigative reporting, and media ethics. He
earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota's
School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1983.
Caucus is undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems. The Caucus
interviewed Chris Ison, journalism professor and former
reporter, to get his perspective on what kind of training future
journalists need and the role different parts of the media play
in Minnesota's process for developing sound policy proposals.
"The media" is a useless term now, because media today are so
varied and diverse. "We
have really good media and really awful media," said University
of Minnesota (U of M) Journalism and Mass Communication
Associate Professor Chris Ison. We have citizen journalism,
citizens who write blogs, some of which few people read, some
that aren't very responsible and some that break news all the
time. "The Drudge Report started as kind of a blog," he said.
"Now if it links to a story in the Star Tribune, that's
the best traffic the paper has all day."
"We have CBS, Fox, MSNBC, the
National Enquirer, the Star Tribune, the New York
Times," Ison continued. "I tell my students, 'You can't just
talk about media, you must be more specific.'"
The fact that people lump together the
media is partially responsible for people not trusting the media
today. Ison said a 2011 Pew Research survey showed that only
25 percent of people say news organizations get their facts
right. He said Republicans are more apt to distrust news media
than are Democrats.
He referred to a 2014 Gallup Poll that
showed trust in newspapers, TV news and news on the Internet is
at an all-time low. It's in the bottom third of the 17
institutions surveyed, just above Congress. Big business was
about the same as the media.
"You can kind of understand why people
don't trust the media," Ison said, "because you don't know what
specific medium they're talking about. They could be talking
about a lot of different media. And part of that lack of trust
you can understand, because media organizations have been
cutting their budgets and kind of tolling the death knell for
awhile. Ad revenues are down by millions of dollars. The
classified sections in newspapers used to be thick and now
they're down to almost nothing."
An interviewer asked why things would
be better if money were not an issue. Ison responded that trust
would still be an issue, but maybe less of an issue if we were
still in the days where the media could hire more people. He
said TV news stations are hiring people with far less experience
than in the past and people who haven't been in town very long.
"It leads to a credibility issue," he said. "It's harder to get
a lot out of the 10 p.m. television news."
A lot of young people today get their
news "sideways," via Twitter or social media. Ison said
young people are not logging directly into, for example, the Star
Tribune's website. Instead, the paper gets a huge portion of
its online traffic from people coming into stories through links
from other sources.
Mainstream news organizations have
given up much of their role in setting the order of the day.
People choose news the way they want to choose news, Ison said.
"It's a bit of an issue. The media have lost that gathering
place they once had. The other side of the coin is that people
are empowered to read the way they want to. On the Star
Tribune website, one of the most prominent elements is a
list of 'most read stories.' They're allowing the public on the
website to set the day's news agenda. It's not the way most
editors would order the stories. How people read has changed a
The Star Tribune website now
features more Variety stories and stories from The
Wrap about celebrities and Hollywood, Ison said. They're
getting a lot of clicks, which helps ad revenue. "Newspapers
have been having a hard time making money on their websites," he
The high cost of getting a journalism
education has become a real issue. "It took me eight years
to get through college, because I was working at the campus
newspaper [the Minnesota Daily at the U of M]," Ison
said. "I spent so much time working at the campus newspaper that
I truly became a journalist in college."
Today, he said, most students are
trying to finish college in four years. "Learning journalism is
about practice and doing journalism. It's tougher when
they have to get out in four years, they have to have a
part-time job on the side and they're trying to work at the
campus newspaper or campus radio station. That's put a lot of
pressure on journalism students. That's a big issue."
Journalism schools are trying to get
students doing professional journalism while in school. Ison
noted that the U of M is using a teaching hospital approach to
some degree: getting students to do journalism that gets
published while they're studying journalism, just like medical
students work in hospitals while they're still in school. "We're
a research university, but at the journalism school, we have
worked hard to cultivate a relationship with the professional
media here," he said. "It's one of our strengths."
The journalism school has a practicum
with the Pioneer Press one semester and with the Star
Tribune the next semester. Ison said there are 13 students
working at the Star Tribune this semester, who will have
probably 150 bylines in the paper over the semester. It was
similar at the Pioneer Press in the fall.
The journalism school runs the Murphy
News Service in partnership with community newspapers. Ison said
the school has students write for those newspapers, again, so
the students get published. In his in-depth reporting class, he
partners with MinnPost, a nonprofit, online newspaper.
"We try to get things the students write in the classroom
published in MinnPost," he said. "When they're writing
for the real public, the stakes are higher. It gets students
doing more journalism."
One of the biggest challenges in
journalism today is transparency in government. "It's a huge
problem," Ison said. "It's a huge problem at the U of M, which
is very public relations-minded. They're reluctant to give up
public records and they're dismissive of reporters. This happens
all over government, with many public agencies violating the
open records law. It'd be interesting to know how many
spokespeople, media representatives and public information
officers have been hired in government and how much is being
spent to basically block access. That's very different from how
it was when I was getting into the business."
The U of M's campus newspaper, the
Minnesota Daily, has always been independent of the
journalism school. Ison said, though, the school tries to
support the Daily, even though the paper's staff members
get to run their own show. "I think they do great work," he
said. Because staff members often have to leave to take
part-time jobs, the paper doesn't have as stable a workforce as
it used to. But he noted that quite a few students who have
worked at the Daily have been hired by the Star
Tribune in recent years.
The journalism school is not training
a lot of students to be experts in various subject areas,
because news organizations are looking for broad skills. An
interviewer asked why those who are training young journalism
students assume that it's merely a craft and that students don't
need to know anything about public affairs. The interviewer
commented that newspapers would never hire anybody for the
sports pages who didn't know anything about sports. "But when it
comes to public affairs reporting, you don't have to know
anything," he said.
Ison replied that the journalism
school is not training a lot of experts in single subject areas
because they're not that employable. Newspapers hire fewer
experts today because of budget cuts. He noted that some
students do double majors in things like economics or political
science, but most graduates are learning on the job about public
affairs and other topics. "It takes years of reporting to really
become an expert," he said.
The journalism school tries to train
students to concentrate on local stories. An interviewer
commented that much of the dialogue in different forms of media
focuses on national and international issues, but he asked who's
covering public affairs in Minnesota. Ison responded that he has
never assigned a student to write a national story. Instead, he
has students write local stories.
He noted that students are reading
more national news than local news, because there is more access
to national news on the Internet. More and more students decide
they want to be foreign correspondents, but Ison tells them
they'll probably have to cover the police department and then
work their way up to covering City Hall first. "We try to train
them to start with local news," he said. "With national news so
accessible online, local news organizations have to cover local
news well and we have to train students to do that."
You can usually find out who's in
charge of making a decision, whether at a business or in
government, and who's affected by the decision and how. Ison
said it depends on the story, but he tries to teach his students
how to do that. "There are polarized sides, but there's someone
in charge," he said. He also believes it's important to get
journalism students to use more academic research, because that
provides more empirical evidence on many topics, rather than
falling back on "he-said-she-said" stories.
It's hard to take complex stories and
make them interesting to people. An interviewer noted that
back in the 1970s and 1980s, Citizens League reports would be
picked up by the newspapers and discussed very quickly. He
suggested that the media could add depth to covering
public-policy issues by having reporters following a set of
issues for a long time or by doing investigative journalism,
which can have a big impact. He asserted that there is no
in-depth reporting on important issues like how state school aid
is distributed to school districts or what is going on with
public assistance. These are major spending areas in the state
Ison responded that newspapers are
reluctant to go deep and spend substantial resources and space
to understand issues that the public is reluctant to invest its
time in. "It's a hard problem," he said. "It's somewhat a matter
of economics. In-depth reporting takes space and we don't give
as much space to issues like that as we used to." Also, news
organizations don't have the financial resources they used to
He noted that news organizations do
pick their spots and go in-depth on many issues. Recently, local
news organizations-the Star Tribune, in particular-have
gone in-depth on issues like child welfare, day care and caring
for disabled adults. The papers look for solutions in those
"Newspapers are paying attention to
how many people click on their stories, while electronic media
are tracking how many people watch television news on any given
night," Ison said. "Some do try to slice off a bit at a time on
these complex issues."
Reporters are looking for background
data on issues. An interviewer asked Ison for his impression
of the performance of institutions of public policy outside of
the media in developing background pieces on important issues
and commenting on the pros and cons of various methods of
resolving community problems.
Ison responded that this is outside of
his area of expertise, but that the Humphrey School of Public
Affairs at the U of M is very relevant and gets in the news a
lot. But we don't see much coverage of many of the other
public-policy groups, such as Growth & Justice. "They're not
getting in the mainstream media," he said. But he noted that
MinnPost does cover some public issues in greater depth. "It
has a smaller audience and is a nonprofit, so it can make that
The interviewer suggested that
education on a given issue from the public-policy organizations
could provide background for reporters. Ison agreed and said
reporters want data and that these organizations don't do enough
in providing background data reporters can use.
We have to find better ways to tell
stories about complex public-policy issues. Ison said one
way to make a story about school funding, for example, more
accessible would be to find people affected by changes in school
funding and tell their stories. Another tactic, he said, is to
explain things visually, using graphics that are digestible.
"There is a science and expertise to that. Newspapers are hiring
He asserted that if we want more young
people reading these stories, an explanation of what a story is
about must be promoted on Facebook and Twitter, along with a
link to the full story.
Writers at MinnPost and
Politics in Minnesotaare often experts on their
topics. An interviewer asked about the impact of MinnPost.
Ison commented that MinnPost is growing and has done
well, even though it doesn't pay a lot to its writers. "In some
ways, it's citizen journalism," he said. "They're able to get
people to write who have expertise in a topic. They know what
they're talking about. It's a diverse set of writers, who use a
conversational style. MinnPost takes on complex issues.
Sometimes, the writers have a bias, but they're transparent
about the bias."
Stories about important public-policy
issues might get on the front page if they break some news.
"Find a way to break some news," Ison said. "When the Humphrey
School gets on the front page, it's because of a new poll or
something going on we didn't know about. It has to be news the
public cares about. Our first responsibility is to the
One emerging model of covering news is
that some nonprofits try to get grants from foundations to do
certain work. Ison noted that Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)
works to try to get content initiatives for emerging issues that
don't get enough coverage. MPR tries to find funding
institutions that care about these issues and tries to get
financial help to cover them. "It can work, but I worry about
conflicts of interest," he said. That's why funders shouldn't
get to determine what stories get covered or how. Organizations
such as MPR and MinnPost are careful about that.
As we get more used to the digital
onslaught of news, consumers will get better at sorting through
junk to find the news. "It's 'buyer or viewer or reader
beware'," Ison said. "There's a big burden on news consumers to
choose well. There's great journalism out there every day. But
people have to dig for it to find it, which can be difficult
amid all the clutter."
"Young people are getting important
news today, but in different ways, like through links on
Facebook and Twitter," he continued. "When young people buy
houses, they will care about taxes. When they have kids, they'll
care about schools. There's hope."
If you want to tell stories that
journalists will run, you must simplify things. "It must be
breaking news," Ison advised. "It's got to pop a little bit. You
must define a problem well that is new. What news organizations
want to do is expose problems that haven't been exposed before.
They'll also try to cover what caused the problems and what the
solutions are. That's called 'solutions journalism.'"
He said it's not good enough to raise
problems without raising solutions. It's an interesting story if
you can show how someone or some organization is doing really
well at solving a problem. "It'd be great to start a beat on
'Things That Work.'"
We should place more emphasis on
helping the press. At the conclusion of the meeting, an
interviewer commented that perhaps there should be less emphasis
on whether the press is doing what it should be doing in
reporting on public-policy issues. "Instead, there should be
more emphasis on helping the press," the interviewer said.
"Public-policy organizations should do their utmost to try to
help people understand an issue. The concentration of our work
in public policy should be thinking about the reporter. Too
often we write things in an esoteric manner."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,