Jodi’s Journal: The media world that is, was and should be

July 1, 2018

I don’t get to the Great Plains Zoo as often as I’d like, but every time I do I’m reminded of a news story I did many years ago.

I was a television reporter a few years out of college, and it was a story about a new 10-year, estimated $10 million master plan for the zoo.

I thought it was worth looking at what types of improvements were planned, so I requested an interview.

The resulting tour with the then-leader of the zoo was not the most inspiring. He pointed out fences that needed to be repaired, water features that weren’t working and a crumbling “mountain” of rock that used to house goats.

It all needed to be fixed, but city leaders at the time thought it was more a reflection of deferred maintenance than a symbol that the zoo was ready for a multimillion-dollar infusion of cash.

The piece led to some pretty immediate changes. The city’s parks department got involved and helped come up with a plan for the more basic repairs. Ultimately, president and CEO Elizabeth Whealy was hired, and many elements of that plan envisioned long ago are now reality thanks to her leadership and lots of public and private sector support.

I took a little walk through the zoo last week for the first time in a few years, because I wanted to see the new brown bear exhibit. I think it’s one of the zoo’s best yet. Make sure you stop by and see it this season.

I take very little credit for any of this, but I’m still pretty proud of what our zoo has become following my report years ago. All I did was ask questions and report what I saw and was told.

That’s the sort of approach I’d like to see more of in the media today. I was reminded of it with the recent death of Argus Leader legend David Kranz.

He and I crossed paths beginning in the early 2000s when we both covered high-profile South Dakota congressional races. I don’t know that I ever scooped him, but there certainly was no one better to be leading my way.

The symbolism wasn’t lost on me that when I joined Argus Leader Media in early 2011 I happened to be given Kranz’s old desk. We approached our profession in somewhat similar ways – starting with a deep commitment to developing relationships with sources. Those relationships bred trust, and that trust resulted in the type of storytelling that attracts readership.

Part of me wishes Kranz’s career had lasted long enough for him to appreciate the immediacy and engagement that comes with today’s digital and social media. Another part of me is glad such a genuine and kind person didn’t have to operate in that environment any longer than he did on the leading edge of it.

For all the benefit that comes with the online universe – the instant feedback and interaction with readers – the negativity and misinformation can wear on anyone in our industry.

Because I cover business, I think I escape the worst of it. But we still get our share occasionally. For instance, when we first reported that Younkers appeared to be headed for closure at The Empire Mall, we spelled out our reporting for readers. We cited a public filing. We explained that wasn’t a guarantee of closure but a sign it was possible. And still, in comments online, a reader called the piece “fake news.”

It’s not fake news just because you don’t agree with it. That’s the understanding those of us in the media have to reach with our readership.

But the prevalence of true “fake news” – accounts created by those other than journalists producing pieces designed to feel like news – puts a higher burden on all of us.

My media model faces a unique situation, as it is funded by paid content. Only a portion of pieces on our site are sponsored, and they’re labeled as such in multiple places. Beyond that, no one influences or approves our content. It’s reported using the same approaches and standards I’ve used throughout my career in media.

But in today’s environment, those standards have to be as strong as ever. Our commitment to accuracy and fairness has to be foundational to our business.

I am fortunate that I get to tell a lot of stories that reflect positively on our business community. That’s a reflection of the strength of our economy, the innovative nature of our businesses and the investments so many continue to make here. That’s not to say we lack for challenges. We don’t, and I’ve covered many and will continue to do so.

But I believe that because of the approach I’ve always taken – trying to reflect the true nature of the community, respecting my sources and treating them fairly – that when I call attention to a problem, the community is likely to listen.

These are challenging times for the media industry, illustrated in the most tragic way to date by the mass shooting last week at a newspaper in Maryland.

And while those innocent people took gunfire, I know other members of the media take verbal and written shots every single day for their work.

The animosity and distrust among much of the public toward this industry demands us to do our work even better. And that doesn’t mean approaching our reporting with an agenda, a predetermined conclusion or a vendetta.

It means doing exactly what Kranz did and I try to do: Building relationships, building trust, asking questions and reporting factually.

I remember when I started in the media that a professor compared the industry to a mirror in that it’s meant to reflect society but noted that it often works more like a mirror in a fun house — creating a certain level of distortion by making some things appear bigger than they really are.

I have always thought of this industry more like a headlight — illuminating what’s right in front of us so all can see it, but more importantly allowing us as a society to look farther down the road, to anticipate what could be coming and change our course as needed.

I think we need that light as much as ever.

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Jodi’s Journal: The media world that is, was and should be

As the media industry faces challenges, these core beliefs should hold true.

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