Montana Public Radio

Parsing The Press: Wrapping Up The Story

May 20, 2021

Over the past five months, Parsing the Press has looked at current issues and how they are being presented in the Montana press. Veteran journalist and author Gwen Florio joins MTPR's Sally Mauk give the main takeaways from the interviews they've done with Montana journalists.

Listen now on Parsing The Press.

Sally Mauk Gwen, in the last five months, we've talked with a bunch of Montana-based journalists, from a small town newspaper editor to a former columnist for The New York Times — and some consistent themes emerged.

One is they love what they do and they're worried about the future of the profession.

Gwen Florio Yeah, that came across loud and clear and that concern has a couple of reasons.

One is that other than some of the non-profits like the Montana Free Press, the Daily Montanan and Kaiser Health News — along with the Lee Newspapers' capitol bureau — the pay in our business remains abysmal. Freelancer and Ann Derrick Gaillot talked about the necessity of having a side hustle, but I know full-time reporters who need a second job to pay the rent.

And when it comes to those non-profits who have been doing really good work, you wonder about their funding sources. You know, that's also an issue out there.

Sally Mauk Well, I learned a lot, Gwen, about the new modes of journalism. You mentioned the non-profits, and then there are all these new podcasts. And, you know, irregardless of the pay question, which is a big one, it's an exciting evolution in some ways.

Gwen Florio One of the things that struck me over the number of shows we did was just the amount of great journalism in many different formats being done around the state. And I think that really showed in Helena where you had the strongest Capitol press corps in years during a really difficult legislative session.

And then around the state, people were covering the pandemic, the political campaigns, the election itself, the turmoil after it. Like in any year, one of those stories would have been huge, let alone having them all in the same year. And we had this wealth of outlets providing coverage.

Sally Mauk One recurring theme in our discussions, Gwen, was the need for news consumers to be actively involved in evaluating fact from fiction — especially on social media — and with the credibility of their news sources.

I think a lot of our interviews touched on that as being something — that we have a responsibility to educate our audience, but our audience has a responsibility to educate themselves.

Gwen Florio You know, I wish everyone could be required to take University of Montana Journalism School professor Lee Banville's new class "Calling B.S.," which basically wants to educate people about determining what's a credible news source and about ethical journalism that holds people accountable. And I hope our show has helped do that.

Sally Mauk Credibility is also tied to diversity, and the more representative a newsroom is of the areas covering, the more reliable and authentic the coverage is.

And that's a message both the freelance photojournalist Tailyr Irvine and Nora Mabie who covers Indigenous communities for the Great Falls Tribune, that's the message they gave us, and that's one I hope many newsrooms take to heart.

Gwen Florio Yeah, the lack of diversity in mainstream news organizations around Montana's really disappointing. And it just, it has got to change.

Sally Mauk One area, Gwen, I think we barely got to the surface of is the growing harassment of journalists, especially female journalists, both online and otherwise. It's shocking and it's not being meaningfully addressed, I don't think.

Gwen Florio I don't think so.

I think the general attitude of a lot of organizations is "just ignore it and it'll go away," and as we found when we talked to people about that, it doesn't go away. It tends to escalate and in some cases in very frightening ways. So I hope that's something else that that organizations work on.

Sally Mauk We talked to so many different journalists. Gwen, what else did you take away from those conversations?

Gwen Florio Despite all the challenges, I think I came away feeling very optimistic about our business and that has to do with the enthusiasm of the journalists themselves.

As you mentioned, people love this work. They feel a sense of mission. It's really important work, especially now with so much going on in the country. And again, a lot of false narratives out there that it's important to counter. So that helped me take heart.

Sally Mauk I think another thing that came up for me was journalists really want to interact with their readers and listeners and viewers. And I think that the profession is looking at a lot of different ways to do that better.

In the past, it was kind of, we'd do the story and the audience would consume it. But now it's like before we do the story, we might engage the audience. And after the story appears, we might engage the audience. I think that's a great trend.

Gwen Florio I do too, and I think it's something that's been long in coming. I think if we'd done it earlier, we might have headed off some of the problems we see now with people's mistrust of the media.

Sally Mauk When we've asked several of our interviewees what their best advice is for young journalists. I'm going to ask you that question. What's your best advice for young journalists just starting out, or for students who maybe are thinking about entering the profession?

Gwen Florio You know, I think I know what you're getting into.

I try to tell people if you think you're going to have a nice 9-5 life, that's not going to happen. I also have said repeatedly it's more fun than any job you'll ever have. I can't imagine doing anything else.

But again, know that especially right now, it's a really challenging time and be ready for that. But then, look at the good you can do as a journalist.

Sally Mauk I think my advice would be that no matter what the new forms journalism takes or what new skills are required, that the basic tenets of journalism — which is that you seek the truth and report that and the ethics of it — don't change. That those are things that are constant.

Gwen Florio Exactly. And you should always remember that old maxim: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Sally Mauk One other issue, Gwen, before we go, that certainly came up over and over again is how access to our news sources has changed, and how those news sources now pick and choose who they're going to speak with — and how that's concerning, I think, to every single journalist we talked with.

Gwen Florio Concerning to journalists and also should be concerning to the public because, you know, we're the way that they get access to these newsmakers.

And two of the things that are most troubling about this are that newsmakers/politicians increasingly either flat won't talk to the press or will talk only to a favored few — or they filter their contact through spokespeople.

So you don't get that direct give-and-take and I think we lose a lot when we lose that.

Sally Mauk And I think that's a point that journalists are going to have to keep making and back each other up in terms of demanding that access. And hopefully the public will also back up journalists, since we are the conduit for information for the public.

I guess, Gwen, it makes sense that a program about journalism would end up having more questions than answers. I certainly do, but I hope we did take some of the mystery away and got news consumers thinking about the profession in ways that will help both us as journalists and them as our audience.

Gwen Florio I hope so too. And it's been a real privilege doing this in many ways. It renewed my faith in what we do.

Sally Mauk Mine, too. Well, this will be the last episode of Parsing the Press before Gwen and I take the summer off. And Gwen, it's been a great pleasure to collaborate with you on this program. Thank you so much.

Gwen Florio Same, Sally. It has just been an absolute privilege throughout. Thanks.

You've been listening to Parsing the Press, a weekly look at how the news is reported featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and MTPR's Sally Mauk.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect spelling of Tailyr Irvine and Ann Derrick Gaillot's names.