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Ohioans air gripes about news industry

It was a steamy July week in Ohio as folks from around the state sat in front of computers and smartphones for two-hour online conversations.

The purpose of the sessions was so reporters and editors in the Your Voice Ohio media project could hear and better represent what was on people’s minds as the presidential election loomed less than four months away.

But it was an awakening for those journalists, who are steeped in politics and acutely tuned to the news: Ohioans had more pressing issues than an election.

People quickly veered from pointed questions about voting to discuss the angst caused by a pandemic and racial unrest, both of which were drawing angry Americans into the streets.

Repeated often were words such as deaths, virus, jobs, fake news, police and race.

And at the heart of their agitation was another oft-repeated word: media.

“Media sells conflict,” one participant said.

Older generations complained that Facebook had supplanted traditional media as the trading place for information. Younger participants who wanted to vote couldn’t find mediated and meaningful information about candidates.

And, a common refrain was, “Where’s Walter?”

Not, “Where’s Waldo?” but “Where’s Walter?”

A THIRST FOR WALTER

Building relationships and restoring trust in media is the reason the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative exists. In the last five years, hundreds of reporters, editors and news directors have sat with well over 1,000 Ohioans to discuss elections, the opioid crisis and how to revitalize communities.

In those conversations, people often shared instructive perceptions of the news media’s role in the country’s divisive politics and growing distrust in institutions — and journalists have thought about ways to change.

“I feel we have lost the sparkle in the world,” said a young father in suburban Toledo as he discussed the July rush of distressing news.

“I’m tired of media bias,” said a Toledo area woman who did not want her name used. People participated with an agreement of anonymity so that they could share personal experiences and feelings. Many, nonetheless agreed to be named.

“I want to hear all the facts,” she said. “I think you can be dishonest by communicating the facts but not all of them. And by the way, where’s Walter Cronkite when you need him?”

She was among several Ohioans over the age of 50 who recalled the days of just three television networks, each with its own evening news, and wished for the deep, gravelly voice of Cronkite, who finished each program with a conclusive, “And that’s the way it is.”

In a 1973 national poll, the CBS anchorman was named the most trusted person in America.

Today, people have access to information from dozens of sources, many of them playing to people of one frame of mind as opposed to Cronkite’s news summaries that attempted to play no favorites. According to a Pew Research Center study, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have different sources of information and do not trust the other.

That has resulted in competing messages.

COMPETING MESSAGES

Stephen Madonna, a Medina County retiree in a September Your Voice Ohio conversation, said integrity is missing from the news. “It’s no longer the facts. When you listened to Walter Cronkite you had the news. I don’t know what the truth is anymore.”

Your Voice Ohio does its work by bringing local journalists and people together to discuss issues at the personal level and, through dialogue, common ground often emerges. The result is recognition by journalists that the divisiveness they cover in government and politics is not reflective of how Ohioans are most likely to act. Moreover, issues important to daily life are often different from what emanates from institutional coverage.

From July through October, Your Voice Ohio conducted four rounds of dialogues – each round divided into five sessions, one for each region of the state. The sessions were designed and facilitated by Kyle Bozentko and Sarah Atwood of the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a 50-year-old non-partisan civic engagement and research organization which manages the Your Voice Ohio collaborative.

Reporters watched as people with diametrically opposing opinions listened to one another and built on ideas on which they agreed or, sometimes, even changed their minds. Almost all Your Voice Ohio participants — selected to provide political and demographic diversity — said they enjoyed conversations with people unlike themselves and would be willing to do it again.

CONFLICT IS A TURNOFF

Paulette Gunn of suburban Toledo directed her anger at television.

“Something has to be done about the news broadcasts we’re getting,” she said. “It used to be there were very good journalists, good reporters. You knew the facts, then you could make up your mind. You knew where to go [for that]. You didn’t have all this slanting. It’s like the whole world is lying to you. I don’t know what can be taken, maybe legal action against them if they’re lying.”

It was not unusual for some to say they stopped consuming news because it was so distressing and offered little hope.

Indya Elie of Cleveland said traditional media has been supplanted by Facebook as “the center of politics — that is where we’re getting our information.” And, she said, traditional media has marginalized itself. “All I see is conflict. We don’t have any idea of where people stand. If all I hear is conflict, I don’t know what [candidates] stand for.”

David Harless, who has lived in other parts of the country and now is in Columbus, said he tries to read news rather than watch it. “Television news has tried to become more entertaining than really discovering the news, and they do this for ratings,” he said. “Walter Cronkite didn’t put a slant on the news. Human beings are hardwired to react to visuals and tone of voice. Because of that, someone who knows what they’re doing knows how to make you feel a certain way about a certain thing.”

Political divisions drove media trust. People who favored Donald J. Trump were most likely to say they had little confidence that news media would provide the information they wanted. The Ohio poll showed they eschewed all traditional media except cable news, a particular cable news show, friends and family, Facebook or political blogs.

Biden supporters, on the other hand, had a great deal of confidence in mainstream media.

doplinger@yourvoiceohio.org.

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