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These comments are responses to the Civic Caucus interview with

Chris Ison, University of Minnesota Journalism Professor
April 8, 2016

Public policy and news organizations must find better ways
to convey public policy issues


Mainstream news 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 on them.

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.  

For the complete interview summary see: Ison interview

Individual Responses:

Wayne Jennings
An informative interview and one that warrants further attention particularly from news sources. I notice that some local TV stations will occasionally give five minutes or more on a specific matter rather than the more typical two or three sentences. That is a hopeful sign.

Stephen Alderson
As a past public policy employee and interviewee of Metro journalists I find it ironic to tell us we don't provide enough information and that we have to simplify what we do provide. Most journalists I met could not understand our issues and making it simple was part of the problem. A conclusion could be that our journalists cater to a under-prepared public, and often are not well trained themselves.

Dennis Carlson
I think Ison's approach is a good one. We can't continue to wish to go back in time and read thick local newspapers and watch one trusted local TV channel for our news. That era no longer exists. So how do we use our small resources (both money and staff) and work together to get our stories out? Locally, in more and more cases, our school district staff writes the news story and the newspaper prints it. That rarely happened in the past - now it occurs regularly.

When we had the cluster of student suicides in 2009-10 our local press (suburban not Twin Cities) handled the situation well with balanced reporting and factual stories. The local newspapers and local cable channels had considerable access to staff and information and obtained many interviews during that time.

When Sabrina Erdely from Rolling Stone interviewed me and two other Communications staff, the conference call interview took 20 minutes on a story she said she had worked on for several months. She had no interest in the complicated set of circumstances that leads to a student suicide. I am convinced now that the bulk of her story was written before we even talked and that she took only that information that fit her established narrative. Now that her journalistic credibility has been debunked in the University of Virginia rape case aftermath, Rolling Stone has certainly gone down further in the "trusted news source" category - but I am sure is still read by thousands of their loyal readers.

When I talk to aspiring or new superintendents, I tell them - the media is never your friend, they are the media. They have a variety of different roles and purposes, and seldom, if ever, are to be trusted. Some local media outlets do have an interest in the community and its institutions but that is rare. Others only want to sell their product or at least get as much exposure as they can so that their ads sell. Then there are others, who want to fuel the fire, obtain bitter, angry quotes that incite more anger and hatred, and then support whatever side they choose to be on. It appears to me that many are trying to make the news rather than report the news.

As you can see, I have really become very jaded in my trust of any media outlet (which is also why I appreciate the insightful conversations through the Civic Caucus and MinnPost). CNN, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and local TV channels I once trusted are all now suspect in my view. My experience with them has not been good as far as depth of reporting, accuracy in quotes and facts, and any interest in actually improving the community we all live in. Thank goodness there are still people like Ison and classes at the U that will continue to expose media in all its glory (pardon the sarcasm) and its complexity.

I do worry that we, as Americans, get the media and the President we deserve. Our national media coverage has now given Donald Trump over $2 billion of free campaign coverage. We will see in November if my worries are valid. If Trump gets to be President I would suggest he considers Sabrina Erdely as his Press Secretary. I hear she is looking for work.

Dale Schmid
I would think you enjoyed the Ison interview -- he had a lot of solid stuff and portrayed a rapidly shifting terrain for journalists.

His idea that public policy groups "set up" journalists was interesting and an indication of how thin journalists are spread. He suggested policy could be illustrated by telling the stories of people affected. I think that idea often is taken too far (particularly on public radio) and substitutes anecdotes for hard information. Interesting, yes, but accurate, maybe not.

Tom Spitznagle
Many of today’s important issues are very complex, in many cases requiring technical knowledge in areas such as economics, finance, medical science, law, government operations, engineering, foreign relations, etc. It takes years of experience for a person working in one of these technical areas to fully understand what is going on and to be able to know when a problem exists that may be of public interest. The average journalist, and especially new grads out of journalism school, are seriously handicapped unless they have also been educated in specific technical fields or have previous technical work experience prior to becoming a journalist.

A casual observation is that many of the most successful journalists tend towards the older end of the age scale. These journalists often have a significant educational or professional background in one of the above technical fields that enables them to recognize and research important issues.

Letting the public dictate news coverage by the number of clicks the public makes on an article is a journalistic cop-out. Journalists have to be intellectually strong enough to get people focused on the most important issues. There are any number of issues out there that are getting little if any journalistic attention because of their overwhelming (to most journalists) technical complexity.


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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.

  John S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje (Executive Director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (Chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman




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