Drinking from a firehose: The media and politics in 2020
It's a fine line, but when Forum News Service talked with a number of sources to understand where things stood with the media, they said holding institutions and people accountable still mattered.
DULUTH — President Donald Trump was bound for Duluth.
And when he arrived Sept. 30, Samantha Erkkila was there as a multimedia producer, a job that sometimes finds her creating videos of news events for the Duluth News Tribune.
It was one of four visits the president made to Minnesota in 2020.
For Erkkila, it felt momentous, like something she’d never experience again.
“I couldn’t believe my life in that moment,” Erkkila said. “Seeing a sitting president, surrounded by thousands during a pandemic.”
She captured the moment with a selfie.
Roughly 24 hours later, on Oct. 1, the president tweeted that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.
The unfolding week saw the president hospitalized for treatment, and later, at least three cases of COVID-19 were linked by the Minnesota Department of Health to the event held at the Duluth International Airport.
Erkkila’s experience helps illustrate the relationship between the media and politics in 2020.
It was a year in which facts mattered to some and not others, a year in which reported science guided the virus-evading behaviors of some, but was denied by others in the name of stubbornness and even conspiracy.
“I had audio of Trump downplaying COVID, and of his supporters downplaying COVID,” Erkkila said.
Forum News Service spoke with a number of sources to learn more about where the media stands in its relationship to politics and facts after 2020. (The Duluth News Tribune, like Forum News Service, is owned by Forum Communications Co.)
The more people spoke, the more certain things were repeated and revealed: The media is broader than ever, locally sourced news is a good starting place for the truth, and now is not the time for the media to stop holding sources accountable just because distrust of the media is high.
“We dance a fine line between being open-minded and hearing people out,” Erkkila said. “But we also need to question their actions and hold them accountable.”
The rise of social media
Trump's tweeting as formal communication from the White House has been one of the most dramatic changes in the country’s ever-evolving discourse, said Denise Gorsline, dean of Arts, Media and Communication at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
“I don’t think he is as personally responsible as it is tempting to give him credit for,” Gorsline said on the state of media. “But when you’re speaking from the White House, you just have a lot of influence and free publicity.”
Before Trump, President Barack Obama tended to have staffers deliver his tweets. He distinguished tweets he wrote by assigning his initials to the end of a tweet, Gorsline said, and was hardly the newsmaker on the medium in the way Trump has shown himself to be.
Trump’s near-constant tweeting — used to share his thoughts, movements, the resignations and firings of those around him, and lately misinformation proclaiming a rigged election — is an example of one of the biggest changes in the media in the 21st century.
With social media, anyone has the megaphone to deliver what can be construed as news.
Add that to a litany of online news sources which didn’t exist pre-Internet, a meme culture that delivers snippets of information in telling and not-always-truthful ways, and the stakes can be overwhelming.
“All this new type of news consumption gets to be a lot,” said Jennifer Moore, associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “We have this firehose of news right now and we’re trying to take a drink of water.”
News consumption increases
Such a climate can have its advantages.
Nathan Johnson teaches journalism at Proctor High School near Duluth, where he is also the adviser for The Mallet, the school paper. His students are thrown into the deep end of the craft early, reporting and producing stories in their first weeks of class.
He’s noticed something about news consumption as his students get their information from places such as Reddit, BuzzFeed and Snapchat.
“In the last five or 10 years, the number of kids that are really aware of what’s going on in the world has really gone up,” Johnson said.
Josie Maahs is a Proctor senior and editor of The Mallet. She said her news consumption peaked in 2020. But she’s more traditional. She sits down to watch the "NBC Nightly News" with Lester Holt, listens to Minnesota Public Radio and reads newspapers — all habits learned or reinforced in Johnson's class.
“I kind of know what’s biased and what’s not,” she said. “I try to go for somebody who doesn’t have a goal; they just want to get you the news.”
Goals can be a sticky wicket in the news business for the way a preconceived goal can narrow a reporter's focus.
Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, is known as a firebrand, and her own tweets can be an unreliable source of information, such as when she was recently flagged by Twitter for making disputed claims about “data abnormalities” in the Minnesota election.
Still, Carnahan makes a point about where news gatherers can go wrong; some approaches can seed the sort of distrust that sends people seeking information which suits their beliefs at highly partisan outlets.
“Oftentimes, it seems like news outlets already have a narrative or position for whatever story they want to write,” Carnahan said. “They’re not open to sharing different points of view, and they use portions of quotes to fit into narratives.”
Married to Minnesota’s 1st District congressman, Rep. Jim Hagedorn, Carnahan cited a metropolitan Minnesota news story about how Paycheck Protection Program funds were distributed to numerous people in the state with political ties.
Carnahan talked to a reporter, and said the story later made it seem like she was receiving preferential treatment.
“I own a small business in Nisswa, a retail store, that’s been really negatively impacted by COVID-19,” Carnahan said. “My husband didn’t even know I applied for PPP. I got $4,000. It didn’t cover one month’s payroll, and they’re going after me? I’m just trying to survive like every other business in the community.”
Carnahan likes social media, “because it doesn’t have a gate.”
As we've been analyzing vote results in Minnesota, we are seeing extreme data abnormalities, that from a statistical variance standpoint, do not make sense. Sometimes it takes digging deep enough to uncover information that is completely 'off.' More to come soon...— Jennifer Carnahan (@jkcarnah) November 19, 2020
“A tweet or a Facebook post is not going to have the same reach,” she said. “But it allows you to get your voice out if it’s not being picked up in other ways.”
Guarding against bias
Archie Ingersoll, a news editor at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead (also a part of Forum Communications), said, “You can’t come into (a story) with preconceived notions or narratives.”
He tells reporters to be careful about their neck. Where are they looking for their news? Where is their head turning?
“If you have a biased neck, focused, say, on one group and not looking at another group, that’s a problem, too,” Ingersoll said. “It’s something news outlets have to continually confront. You have to challenge yourself to keep an open mind, and ask, ‘Am I coming at this story fairly?’”
Ingersoll described a reporter’s work as an ongoing conversation with readers — one that ought to represent a vast array of topics and viewpoints.
It's an idyllic notion, but one that doesn't line up with a harsh landscape.
A Gallup and Knight Foundation poll earlier this year found distrust of the media on the rise, with nearly half (46%) of Americans saying they think the media is “very biased.”
The poll reported Republicans (71%) more often than Democrats (22%) and independents (52%) have unfavorable opinions of media outlets. Eighty-six percent of Americans say that news organizations advocate political viewpoints rather than report the news free of bias, the poll reported.
In an era in which Trump and so many others are now playing loosely with facts, Moore, the Duluth professor, challenges the notion that reporters are supposed to be objective and tell both sides of a story equally.
“There’s so much emphasis on being detached, objective journalists, which does journalism no favors,” Moore said. “They’re not robots. In my classroom, the conversation is not about them being objective, but about them being fair.”
Isabelle Hopewell is a sophomore double-major in journalism and acting at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She hopes to tell stories for the rest of her life, she said, and is convinced she can "somehow" combine acting and journalism to tell other people’s stories.
“It’s ironic people don’t trust the media, because the media as an institution is extremely broad,” Hopewell said. “The media is so many different things — it can be Netflix or Hollywood or something that is niche. When somebody tells me, ‘I don’t trust the media,’ I ask them, ‘Where are you looking for your source?’”
For the people talked to for this story, most of their sourcing starts local. They described it as the most reliable, grounded source — one seemingly less dependent on drawing traffic by presenting a highly partisan approach.
Moore encourages her students to read the local newspaper and watch the local nightly newscasts, and then radiate out from there into regional and national news sources.
Johnson, the high school educator, also leads with local sources and talks to his students about sourcing.
“We talk about getting totally different versions of stories,” he said, comparing networks such as MSNBC with Fox News. “In the last few years we’ve started incorporating fake news. It’s so easy if you don’t like a story to say it’s fake. But even when it’s inconvenient to you, they’re still facts.”
Moore said to understand fake news is to understand the history of journalism.
"What I worry about is students think this is a new normal," she said. "That's where history and knowing your discipline is important. Journalism used to be highly partisan, and directly funded by political parties in the early- to mid-19th century. It's obvious Fox News leans to the right and MSNBC leans to the left. But they're not directly funded by parties."
Ingersoll differentiates news from opinion, and said there will always be a place for fair, accurate and unbiased information. To support his point, he noted a North Dakota Newspaper Association survey, which showed in November that 86% of North Dakota adults read a local newspaper.
MORE FROM THE 2020 PROJECT:
The virus, the riots, the election: The unforgettable 2020
Walz stuck to his 'One Minnesota' message during a politically and socially fractured 2020
Health care after COVID-19: vaccine passports, social disruption and a forgetting of this era
"It’s true that we’ve faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny and distrust of media on a national level," said Sarah Elmquist Squires, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association. "But I think when you ask even the biggest critics of mainstream media about their local newspaper, it’s still what they trust."
Ingersoll agreed, saying the media has long been a punching bag. But it doesn't mean media outlets shy away from their duties and responsibilities to the truth.
“There’s always going to be opinion, and it’s always going to be a part of the paper,” Ingersoll said. “People want information delivered to them without a slant. The challenge for local news outlets is making sure their voice is not drowned out, and making sure stories are reaching readers and viewers. Journalists have to meet consumers where they’re at — on the web, on their phones. We need to keep doing it and getting better at it.”
It's important to note the flip side of the Gallup and Knight Foundation poll referenced earlier: While Americans say they distrust the media, they also think the media is vital for democracy. The vast majority (81%) say that the news media is “critical” (42%) or “very important” (39%) to democracy.
For Erkkila, the multimedia producer in Duluth, working in local news is grounding. She described the constant churn of U.S. and world news, and how it can be hard to keep track of it all.
She reflected on the Trump supporters, many of whom declined to wear masks that day in Duluth or believe in the coronavirus as nothing more than a common flu.
It was her job to listen and ask questions. But it was also her job to be skeptical, and wonder what having 3,000 people attend Trump's event could mean when the state health recommendation was that gatherings shouldn’t exceed 250.
“We can be open-minded and hear what you have to say,” Erkkila said. “But we also have to look at science and those recommendations and question people’s actions.”
This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.