Ison Interview Please take one minute to evaluate our website. Click here to take the survey.
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.
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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.
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.
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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