OPINION: Journalism essential to democracy by creating well-informed citizens
April 15th, 2017 | Carey Restino
This week, Art Cullen won a Pulitzer prize. You've probably never heard Cullen's name before — he's not likely to be quoted in the New York Times or the guest on a late night talk show covering modern-day politics. Cullen is the editor of a small, family-run newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, a farming town of 10,000. His paper has a circulation of 3,000, about the size of many small papers in Alaska.
But Cullen, who copy edits, reports and even lays out many of the paper's pages, takes his job seriously. His writing has taken to task some of the most powerful agricultural names in our nation, from the Koch Brothers to Monsanto. Along with his son, Tom, who did much of the reporting, Art Cullen exposed the secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit by private interests, the Poynter Institute reported.
Cullen, you see, used the power of the written word to expose a multitude of injustices, from under-paid immigrant workers to government financing misdeeds. He and his 24-year-old son did that work the old fashioned way, combing through records and badgering politicians. He lost some friends in the process, Cullen said, but he said in an interview it was worth it because the corruption wasn't right.
Cullen is unquestionably a talented man deserving of his award, but the favor of his work can be found in small newsrooms across the country. While small-town reporters are held to similar standards as their big-city peers, they typically lack most of the resources the big papers have. While reporting on claims of election fraud, they must also compile community calendars and answer calls about why the local cheerleading team didn't get more recognition in print. It's hard work with low pay and high turnover. But most journalists do it because they see first-hand what an impact such efforts have on the communities they write about. They see that information is power in the hands of the public, and that journalism is an essential part of guaranteeing that public is well-informed.
Today, it is popular to criticize journalists as being biased, slanted and reporting "false news." While that may apply in the case of some large-scale operations, particularly television news in our country, it is hardly the case in most newsrooms. Ironically, the claims of "false news," and the distrust it creates about the media actually wind up perpetuating the very thing that is being criticized. For news to be truly unbiased, all sides of an issue must be willing to talk to newspaper reporters, to express their thoughts about an issue openly. If journalism is being black-listed, then those who are distrustful may be less likely to discuss their views with reporters. That creates a lopsided story, one that does not accurately represent the issue at hand, and further perpetuates the stereotype that all journalists are slanted.
It is true that as individuals, many journalists may have particular views on issues. But most have been taught, either by professors or, more likely, by trial and error, to set those views aside when they put on their journalist cap. What they want is to present the facts, reflect reality, and offer a forum for the many voices of a disagreement to speak openly so everyone understands each other.
Here's the good news: Differences of opinion go hand-in-hand with democracy. It's been a long time since that was so obvious — the '60s come to mind — but many see the current level of political involvement as positive. For that involvement to be well-informed, however, journalists have to be respected for the hard work they do and the reason for their work has to be understood. Free press is a vital part of our democracy because few people have the time to sit through council meetings, sift through court documents and edit countless letters to the editor. But journalists, even those of small newsrooms across the state, can do great things if their community values and supports them.
In Alaska, people are getting busy. The fishing season is starting, construction sites are thawing, and soon, the tourists will be here. Most Alaskans will get too busy pretty soon to keep pace with the ins and outs of public policymakers, of environmental decision-makers, and of the opinions of their neighbors. But while Alaska rushes head-long into its sprint through summer, journalist will be there, watching, reading, writing, reporting about the important decisions being made across the state.
And the vast majority of them are doing it so that the rest of the state can be fully informed. As Art Cullen said, the public deserves to know what is going on. There's nothing false about that.