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In a Pandemic, Local Journalism is More Valuable than Ever

in Featured/Opinion by

SaltWire is laying off 40 percent of its staff.

Weekly papers in NL and NS will be suspended. Others will be merged. Many of the remaining staff will be required to take a pay cut.

Here at The Independent, we’re known to engage in well-spirited critique of our media colleagues. We don’t hesitate to call out and critique other journalists—at Saltwire and elsewhere—for the way stories are covered, for the voices that are highlighted (or omitted), the priorities and methodology of their coverage.

But the fact is that without them, our world, and our province, would be far worse off. SaltWire has many excellent journalists, who are working overtime to bring you the latest news and updates as we face the greatest collective crisis in recent history. As a result of these layoffs, many of their voices, and much of that coverage, will now fall silent.

Media and journalists are among the essential workers in any crisis. They are vital in this one. As individuals and families hunker down in their homes, frightened and uncertain about what is happening at any given time, it is journalists who courageously cover events, collate information from frontline services, and keep us informed with accurate and timely coverage.

While our social media feeds fill up with gossip and rumour, panic and prejudice, journalists tell us what is actually happening. While we’re looking after the safety and well-being of ourselves and our families, they’re the ones looking out to see who is falling through the cracks, and who is unable to cope as well as others. They’re the ones who can objectively assess whether government promises are actually being carried out, and how well they’re being carried out. They’re the ones giving voice not just to officials, but to frontline workers and those in the thick of the pandemic struggle. They’re the ones putting the critical questions to government, holding them to account for their response (or lack thereof), and in some cases keeping government informed about the needs of those they may not even be thinking about.

Unfortunately, some governments are learning the wrong lessons from the Internet era: in a world where it is possible for anyone to reach mass audiences directly in their homes, they don’t always need news media to get their message across. Every day, thousands of residents in this province tune in to Facebook to watch the daily briefings of Chief Medical Officer Fitzgerald, Premier Ball, and Minister Haggie. That they provide these briefings on social media is excellent and they are to be commended for this work. However, the second half of those briefings is equally vital: when journalists, armed with their observations, information and insight, ask critical questions to officials. This is the critical role of journalism: to bring hidden or ignored issues into the open, and to request answers, accountability and action from government.

Just as government is pursuing ways to help business and individuals survive this crisis, it is critical for them to keep our province’s journalistic operations functioning. Not at 60 percent capacity, but at 100 percent. They can do this by extending grants and funds, purchasing advertising in local media sources (rather than Google and Facebook), and more.

When local journalism suffers, so does public health and safety. The loss of CBC’s regional broadcasts was already a blow. Thankfully, CBC heard the public outcry, and is moving to restore those vital regional broadcasts. Communities fraught with panic, fear and uncertainty need to see local faces, places and people now more than ever. They need to hear accurate local information, delivered by local journalists: people they can relate to and trust. This is critical to maintaining public trust and confidence. It is critical to ensuring public health and safety.

Public health experts point to the fact that when it comes to fighting the pandemic, transparency and public trust works far better than coercive rules and measures. “When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders,” writes Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari in the Financial Times. “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.”

Georgetown University global health professor Matthew M. Kavanagh put it even more bluntly in Foreign Affairs: “Transparency and testing work better than coercion in [the] coronavirus battle.”

When people know the facts and the dangers, when they trust the information they are receiving to be credible and not just propaganda, then they are more likely to act on it. It enables them to make educated decisions about how to stay safe and reduce risk in their personal lives. When people resent or mistrust the way information is delivered to them, or the way that their daily lives are constrained, they are more likely to ignore, break or accidentally violate the rules and measures that could keep them safe.

Journalists are working overtime to bring transparency and accurate information to the public. Many journalism outlets whose websites and apps are normally paywalled (including SaltWire) have moved proactively to adjust those paywalls and make COVID-19 news stories available to the general public. They’re doing so out of a sense of public duty and responsibility, even though it is putting their own livelihoods and financial viability further at risk. Governments and the public need to recognize this sacrifice, and the daily importance of local journalists, by keeping the funds flowing in order to keep the media alive. It’s the only connection many of us have these days with each other, and our broader society—not to mention the world.

As Telegram reporter Juanita Mercer—one of the many excellent SaltWire journalists—tweeted yesterday: “Want to help local journalism? Ask govt. to re-direct its advertising and communications spending from American-owned companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and invest in locally owned media companies.”

One of the challenges we now face is how to ensure our own physical survival under unprecedented circumstances, while at the same time ensuring that we do not lose the society and way of life that we value in the process. Journalism is fundamental to keeping our society and democratic way of life alive as it too faces unprecedented stresses from the pandemic.

Here at The Independent, our thoughts go out to the journalists affected by this. We want to offer our sincere respect for the tremendous job all local journalists are doing during this crisis.

You can support most media outlets by taking out subscriptions or signing up for regular donations. You can also purchase ads, if you’re a company or a public body. And if you are not able to do those things, you can encourage others (and our governments) to do so. Journalism is critical to the pandemic effort, and journalists are essential workers.

At this time, more than ever, we need more local journalism—not less.

Photo by Ralf Roletschek (Roletschek.at).

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