The “Media Trust and Democracy “Trustworthy” Documentary Screening and Panel Discussion,” drew a crowd of more than 100 journalists Thursday at the 2023 Society of Professional Journalists conference. Stephany Zamora, the executive producer of the film, which focuses on the American people’s trust in present-day media, hosted a panel with three journalists who appear in the 107-minute informational feature.
The film depicts the 5,300-mile journey of a news team across America. They spoke with a variety of people from college students and professors to experts and journalists who discussed fake news, the dangers journalists today are facing, and how we can improve our news and rise above these issues, which are currently dividing our country. Zamora, Gabriel Escobar, the editor of The Philadelphia Enquirer, Cathie Batbie, the news director of KVOA-TV in Tucson, AZ, and Alex Mahadaven, the director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute were a part of the project and discussed their experiences in a panel discussion.
Zamora spoke initially about how she had a calling to act and create this film after the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6th. She wanted to see if people are really divided as we’re led to believe.
“And based on what I’ve seen going across the country, I think we are all pretty much the same. We may have different choices that we make in our life, but I think we all love our country and want to get along with each other,” she said.
The panelists initially voiced their opinions on the complex relationship between false information and bias.
Q: What is the relationship between false information vs. bias?
Escobar: “Well, false information is something that is false, and you’re putting it out there for some stated goal or aim. Bias is a complex thing, because it could be the bias that you willfully acknowledge and it becomes part of your report. That could affect your reporting in profound ways. All of these things have to be a kind of mental check for reporters. I think that one of the healthier evolutions in the last few years is the recognition by reporters.”
Batbie: “Yeah, we all have opinions. I mean, we’re humans. I’ve always told my employees and the on-air folks especially, that I shouldn’t be able to tell as a viewer how you vote. If I can, you’re in the wrong profession, and I think that’s a good gut check. You have to be cognizant of that as a journalist. So it’s a gut check especially for people coming into the business to really be thinking about how they tell stories and making sure that if you’re a journalist and you’re going out there to find the answer to the truth, no matter where you stand, where your opinion is personally.”
Mahadevan: “From a news consumer standpoint, bias and misinformation are very closely intertwined because disinformers, the content that they create, misleads people. A lot of it is very effective due to their understanding of each of your biases and playing off those biases and understanding that it doesn’t matter how fake the video that they put out there is. If you believe in what that video is saying, then you’re ultimately going to believe it if it confirms your bias in the way you see the world.”
In another discussion, the panelists spoke about the role journalists have in the newsroom, and Batbie gave a very informative response saying that journalists have to be direct in getting the facts and reporting.
Q: What is the role of a journalist and being factually correct, avoiding fake news or bias?
Batbie: “I’m a big “J” journalist. I grew up knowing that you go out there and you do what’s right and you report the facts. Ultimately, we will be able to do that in some form, or at least make a difference. It’s the small things we do every day that lead us in that direction, and it’s just being a good journalist.”
The panelists also discussed the relationships between journalists and the communities in which they work.
Q: What are the relationships between communities and journalists?
Escobar: “Journalists, institutionally, have not done themselves any favors by being closed-in from communities and actually sort of perpetuating a mystery about what we do and how we do it. Many people don’t quite understand how journalism is done. Journalistic decisions are a mystery to them. Why was this story done and not this one? Why is this story so prominent and not this one? I think journalists have to be a little bit more transparent about the processes in newsrooms, even bringing people into newsrooms.”
Batbie: “On a local level, it’s a little bit easier, probably, than on a national level. I can tell you that if you go out there and you look at a lot of national websites, it’s gonna be difficult to find a phone number sometimes to the actual station, much less the news director. My phone numbers on our website, and I take calls, and people are shocked when I reply to emails and I call them back. So I’ll call and talk to people, and now, all of a sudden, when there’s a local news story, I have a new friend that’s sending me stories. It’s building those relationships. It’s talking to people. It’s answering their questions.”
Overall, this panel was filled with experts hoping to shed light on everything from fake news to how the journalism industry can improve when journalists have relationships with the people in the communities they cover.