#FFWgr2018: How to do good journalism amid layoffs and fake news

“No matter where you are in your career, have a servant’s heart,” said Barbara Bradley Hagerty (left).

I haven’t worked as a full-time journalist for over six years, but I still care about the field – and my friends who remain in it – a lot.

Amid the political and financial turmoil that news outlets, particularly local newspapers and TV stations, are suffering, it can be hard to see signs of hope for the industry.

In light of these realities, journalists who spoke at the Festival of Faith & Writing had some insights for both those who produce news content and those who consume it. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a former longtime religion reporter for NPR and the author of two books, and Tony Norman, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shared their thoughts in a joint session. (Full disclosure: Hagerty and I attend the same church, and Norman is also a Calvin graduate like me.)

“We have an administration that has demonized the press,” Norman said. “‘Fake news’ used to mean ‘stuff made up out of thin air,’” but is now used derogatorily toward respected news outlets.

Hagerty agreed. “I think this is a really scary time,” she said. “If our credibility is attacked long enough, it will be eroded. All you can do at this time is be bulletproof” regarding accuracy. “The standard is so much higher in this climate.”

Norman said he has remained in journalism because “I want to be part of the conversation, a more robust civic conversation.” That conversation has expanded with social media, as “you’re on so many more platforms now,” and people follow him on Twitter who don’t even read the print edition of his newspaper.

Although many people will also never be interviewed by a journalist, those who are care “that they are portrayed accurately,” Hagerty said. “I try to actually get in their shoes. Everyone has a cogent reason for believing what they believe.”

She also noted that audiences can turn to podcasts and online sources of news as local newspapers die off, and reporters can get bylines in other places.

Still, Norman said that to an extent, newspapers will always be a good way to convey information: “It’s going to be like vinyl records,” not completely going away even as new forms of media emerge.

At another joint session, Emma Green of The Atlantic and Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post also noted the effect of President Donald Trump on journalists, particularly regarding religion coverage.

“The media has in some way woken up to the religion world again,” Green said, noting that New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and others recognized there’s “a force at work here that we didn’t have our pulse on.” She’s seen “more good journalism in more places about religion” that wouldn’t have run such stories before.

Bailey said that after the 2016 election, it was “almost like confession” for a short while for journalists, until more significant attacks on the media began and journalists began “hunkering down.”

“It’s been really hard to break through Trump noise,” since he “drives the narrative,” she said. “You can only write so many Trump stories before you get bored.”

Bailey and Green, who are both white, noted the need for diversity — religious, racial and otherwise — in newsrooms. (Norman, who is African-American, made a similar case in his session, noting that recruiting more journalists of color would improve representation in news coverage.)

Many prominent national religion reporters are women, partly because “religion is seen as a soft beat,” although it’s not, Green said. But no matter one’s background, “every journalist needs to write about people who are not like them.”

Earlier, Hagerty and Norman said the fact that more people have subscribed to larger national newspapers in the past two years is encouraging.

“That’s how you strike a blow for freedom,” Norman said.

My biggest takeaway from both sessions was that American journalism as a whole isn’t dead. But, it will continue to change rapidly, and those who want to get the fewer and fewer jobs available in the field need to have the skills, right attitude and perseverance necessary to seek out opportunities wherever they can. To build on Green’s statement, reporters shouldn’t just cover people not like them, but their bosses should hire people not like them. The American public — and American democracy — will all benefit as a result of having stronger, more representative media that takes religion, among other subjects, seriously.