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Commentary: Being Well-informed

By Marla Crockett, KERA 90.1 Commentator

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-592873.mp3

Dallas, TX –

The numbers were jarring. The Morning News's daily readership fell by about 14 percent over the same two-quarter period ending last year. No other big city paper came close. The Belo Corporation says about half of the decline was intentional, as it stopped delivering to unprofitable locations, but that still leaves the Morning News as a visible symbol of where the industry is.

According to an annual report issued by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, here's why we the people are reading less: Newspapers take too much time to consume. They're not as convenient as other media. Some of us just don't like to read. There's more competition out there. Then there's concern about bias. That complaint hits other media, too, and feeds into a 20-year pattern of skepticism about journalists and the companies they work for.

All this doesn't mean the public is giving up on news. The report says we still think journalism matters. But because of our doubts, we surf the net and gravitate to blogs and media outlets that reinforce our views. We all know this is happening, and professionals in the field will continue to debate how to respond to the trends. But the question they're not talking about has to do with us. In this changing environment, what does it mean to be a well-informed citizen?

A lot of people are answering that question by venturing into journalism themselves. No longer content to get information second hand, they're sitting through city council and school board meetings, talking to neighbors about local issues and writing up stories online. No one's documented all of the initiatives, but this citizen journalism movement is growing and, for the most part, operating independently of the mainstream press.

Last month I did some training for people who want to tell their own stories, and it led me back to the basics of journalism, its values and best practices. I concluded that if we all acted more like good reporters, we'd be a lot better informed.

For example, a good reporter acknowledges his or her biases upfront and makes sure they don't color the story. How often do you admit your biases while consuming the news? A good reporter seeks out facts and confirms them. When was the last time you checked out something in a report? A good reporter talks to a lot of different people to get the whole story. Do you? A good reporter follows his or her curiosity. Doing that one thing would cause us to question more assumptions, dig a little deeper and seek out more sources of information. But that brings us back to our chief problem--time. Who has it to spare to read, listen and watch that critically? Well, you're right, but then I think of my late grandmother, Reva Chester.

She was the self-taught editor of a weekly newspaper in Kansas during the Depression. Reva went on to become an elementary school teacher, but I'll always remember how she pored over her daily newspaper checking for balance and thoroughness. The practice of journalism taught her lessons of citizenship, and it can do the same for us.

Marla Crockett lives in Plano and works on independent journalism and civic projects.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.