Tuesday, Sept. 25, the Bangor Arts Exchange hosted “What’s Going On with the News?” a public forum organized by the Maine Humanities Council and moderated by executive director Hayden Anderson. This event was part of a year-long series of programs titled “Journalism, Democracy, and the Informed Citizen,” which aims to educate people on the role of journalism and give them the opportunity to ask questions about the way news gets made.
The panel was composed of three prominent Maine journalists: Erin Rhoda, editor of Maine Focus at the Bangor Daily News, Cliff Schechtman, executive editor at the Portland Press Herald, and Michael Socolow, associate professor in the University of Maine’s Communications & Journalism Department.
The forum opened with a basic description of what journalists do, with explanations from Rhoda on how reporters choose topics, how they decide who to interview, and the process of fact checking, as well as the purpose of reporting itself.
“People forget that this is an empathetic profession,” said Rhoda. “I feel like I’m always looking out for the public. I want to uncover stories that aren’t being told — they aren’t being told because no one knew to ask.”
Rhoda also said that the news isn’t always negative. Sometimes problems are newsworthy, but just as often, stories are centered around new solutions.
Schechtman gave the editor’s perspective. As the person who runs the newspaper, the executive editor is responsible for setting the standards. How will the paper handle anonymous sources? Will it focus on hard news or narrative writing? Does it prioritize investigative “watchdog” reporting or light informative articles? These are all questions that the executive editor has to answer.
Another decision the editor must make is figuring out which details are necessary.
“Everyone in a newsroom is making ethical decisions,” Schechtman said. “It’s important to have compassion. Your reporting can make or break somebody.”
Telling the truth is the top priority, but Schechtman said that it’s also important to think about the sensitivity of your readers. If a high school basketball team loses its game and the photographer gets a photo of players crying on the bench, the news team has to decide if that photo is crucial enough to risk embarrassing the students.
Socolow addressed the ways in which Maine’s news landscape is distinct from other parts of the country. The most stark difference is that Maine is the first state where almost every daily newspaper is owned by the same person; there’s only one daily in the state that Reade Brower, a Camden resident who the New York Times referred to as the “Media Mogul of Maine,” does not own.
“I don’t feel at all powerful,” Brower told the New York Times in 2017. “All of the papers continue to operate autonomously.”
Audience members were given the opportunity to ask the panel members questions, leading to discussions of topics from fake news to inherent racial bias to election day reporting. The overarching topic, the intersection of journalism and democracy, came up throughout the conversation as well. It is a reporter’s job to speak with politicians and government officials, get direct information about the workings of the government and give that information to the public.
Socolow called upon the education system to help people understand the media, saying that many schools neglect to teach media literacy and as a result people enter adulthood without the ability to read news critically.
Ultimately, the panelists imparted the idea that journalism is designed to work for the people.
“The press watches how those in power treat the public,” Schechtman said. “We are fallible. This is a human pursuit. But there is no freedom without us.”