I’ll just say it: There is no returning to a pre-pandemic normal for journalists because the game has changed, whether news organizations want to recognize it or not.
Three major developments in 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, and the U.S. presidential election — tested journalists’ abilities to report facts while debunking massive amounts of disinformation/misinformation around each one.
Each led to discussions within our newsroom on how to adjust. We at WITF, a public radio and television station serving central Pennsylvania, changed. We became nimbler.
During the first two months of the pandemic, we devoted nearly all our staff to covering the unfolding threat in our region and loaned out our health reporter to a partner organization to explore Covid-19 issues in depth. We held weekly mental health chats within the team to check in and prop each other up. Reporters were given a day off on a rotating basis to rest and step away from the grind.
While racial justice demonstrations didn’t turn violent in our region, we took note of attacks on journalists in other parts of the country, including colleagues in Philadelphia. That led to discussions about purchasing riot gear to protect our staff, hiring security, and sending reporters in two-person teams to potentially dangerous protests. Never in a million years did I think that was a conversation we’d be having with upper management. But the environment had shifted.
The 2020 election? That was a whole other ballgame.
We questioned ourselves constantly — including whether what our reporters were seeing and hearing squared with the allegations about improper election procedures. We decided to call a lie a lie. We measured ourselves against our ethical standards as well as our obligations to facts and the First Amendment. We made decisions thoughtfully and methodically, including editors and staff members.
We stepped out on a ledge by creating something that to our knowledge no other media organization has done: WITF implemented an accountability policy that links state and federal elected officials with their actions supporting then-President Donald Trump’s election fraud lie, which led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
We compiled a list of the U.S. House members from the commonwealth and state lawmakers who signed on to efforts to overturn the votes of millions of Pennsylvanians. Now, every story we air and publish that quotes one of those lawmakers also cites his or her connection to the election fraud lie.
We felt this step was necessary to hold accountable each elected leader on the state and federal level who supported efforts to discredit the 2020 results in Pennsylvania. By consistently presenting the facts, the lie will be revealed and its power over those who believed and support it will be diminished. Our newsroom is also developing a beat specifically aimed at combating misinformation/disinformation.
I get it. Change is scary. But, failing to confront the threat to journalism’s fact-based reality is even scarier.
Our editorial team — WITF’s chief content officer Cara Williams Fry, senior editor Scott Blanchard, and I — kicked around ideas on how to address the actions of elected leaders designed to effectively dismiss millions of Pennsylvanians’ votes — over a lie. Then came Jan. 6. What happened left us no choice. We had to act.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was clearly an effort to stop Congress from certifying the presidential results. But that didn’t deter several Pennsylvania GOP members from challenging the tally when lawmakers returned to work after the riot. We had just witnessed an attack on the truth and democracy. It was time for some outside-the-box thinking.
Our team went into this process completely understanding that it might be an unusual decision for a news organization to make. Not only would we be holding elected leaders accountable, but we would be pointing out their actions every time they were mentioned in a story — on air and online. But we also knew these are not normal times.
We’ve received some criticism from listeners. Most cited Fox News talking points — “What about the Russia hoax?” for example — and they continually moved the goal posts, asking questions like “Why didn’t you do this when Democrats objected to Trump’s certification?” We anticipated several of these questions and detailed our answers in a separate post.
Some have criticized us as much for saying we were doing it as for doing it. They felt we were drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves by detailing the reasons for our policy. But transparency is a big part of our journalism. It would have been unnatural for us to just start dropping this language into stories without explaining to people what we were doing and why and inviting them to talk to us about it.
Since January, when we started the accountability policy, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet not a single media organization, to my knowledge, has followed suit. Why is that?
I understand the fear or hesitation. It may seem like you are surrendering “objectivity” and choosing sides. But WITF is proof you can operate thoughtfully and ethically to craft a response to unprecedented demands on journalists’ independence. As disinformation and misinformation take more and more of a foothold in our social media feeds and dinner-table discussions, it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to keep the facts front and center and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy since November.
The pandemic may be easing, but the country’s political divisions are not. Editors and journalists must talk about how to include accountability reporting in political stories. It’s past time for media organizations to move on from “both sides” reporting. There is an open war on facts and truth. News organizations need to stop worrying about faux cries of bias and start living up to their First Amendment responsibilities.
Ryan J. Reilly at HuffPost has been a stand-out when it comes to tracking the criminal cases of people charged in the Capitol attack. Dave Zweifel, a columnist in Wisconsin, called on journalists in his state to hold legislators accountable for their participation in “a scheme to overthrow democracy.”
Maybe being a public media organization — publicly-owned and not beholden to a corporation — makes it easier for us to make our own decisions. That doesn’t mean other news organizations can’t engage with the scourge of disinformation and do what they do best. A couple of examples come to mind: NPR has dedicated an entire series to Untangling Disinformation and The New York Time’s Daily Distortions tracks false information and other efforts to mislead.
They speak truth to power and follow the facts wherever they go.
We will continue our election accountability policy for the foreseeable future. And we are focusing on what our coverage of misinformation/disinformation will look like to track elected leaders and candidates for public office at all levels. Are they sharing known falsehoods? Are they pushing conspiracy theories?
The legacy of the Covid-19 era in journalism hasn’t been written. It’s just getting started.
Tim Lambert is the Multimedia News Director and Morning Edition host at WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a six-time recipient of the Radio Television Digital News Association’s (RTDNA) National Edward R. Murrow Award.