“Spotlight,” a movie about investigative journalism, won the Best Picture Oscar this year.
The cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church created a dramatic narrative and equally significant, journalism was recognized for its power to tell the truth. The capacity of storytelling and the value of news win a coveted spot in film history.
But I worry that in this moment of recognition, the importance of journalism may be lost. In the near future, I fear no one will be around to report the news we need and must hear. Who’s going to tell the story?
News gathering takes time and resources. Similar to investigative journalism, all reporting requires persistence to dig deeper and get to the truth. Original reporting is based on facts that will shine a light on facts, a fair light, taking into consideration all points of view. Objectivity drives the work, something that’s all too often lost in today’s media frenzy.
The best stories are not based solely on first impressions and the first question that a hasty, drive-by account may attempt to answer. Most often, the truth is uncovered by asking the second and third questions. Longer, not shorter, stories are called for. Good storytelling explores the why and how, not just the what and who.
Real-life drama deserves keen documentation. I’m tired of the quick judgments and speculations that pass themselves off as news. A Facebook post, a real-time tweet, or a blog post may report information, but real stories take time and reflection to capture the truth. Accuracy requires tenacity to search and uncover. I long for integrity not conjecture.
Despite the acclaim that the film “Spotlight” has received, the stories that matter may easily be lost simply because no one is there to report them. Think of the city of Bell, Calif., scandal and the massive misappropriation of public funds. How long would the fraud and cover-up have continued if no journalist had asked hard questions and dug for the truth?
I’m also talking about the smaller, simple stories that may easily be ignored, such as the new faces of women and people of color assuming new leadership roles in a small town, a small business finding success when competing in a global marketplace, or a crucial city council or school board vote that will alter the course of development for a community of under 10,000 residents.
Such stories often go unnoticed because they don’t make a big splash. We neglect homegrown models of success that should be shared with a broader world. We need someone to be present at public meetings who can raise questions of accountability and also acknowledge bold decisions.
We will miss such reporting after it’s gone. Worse yet, we probably won’t know what we’re missing.
Local journalism puts the public back into our institutions and keeps an eye on stories that matter to our daily life. I began my writing and journalism career at a small, weekly newspaper. While there, I never found a cover-up or scandal that rocked our small community. But the presence of a local news person mattered.
Communities prosper with transparency. A writer can help ensure the voiceless have a voice. We need people to keep an eye on public life.
There is no substitute for coverage of locally produced news. Such information remains vital and continues to be extremely popular. The public is hungry for responsible storytelling. Larger media sources will not always cover the everyday stories from smaller communities unless there’s a sensational element, most often extremely negative and filled with turmoil and drama.
Yet more and more, the support for local journalism is declining. Smaller newspapers are barely hanging on, budgets to pay for reporters and local coverage are declining.
We then fall into the trap of thinking that no news is good news, a lack of story must imply all is well. I find this most troubling in rural areas where the silence is interpreted as benevolence.
New models are unfolding. In Mountain View and Palo Alto, local newspapers are consolidating and relaunching themselves as a new, regional edition. A small, but dedicated team has led the charge with hard-hitting investigative reports by creating the nonprofit Voice of San Diego.
A wave of “citizen journalists” are being trained to cover their own communities and develop a local, online community. A study of the California wildfires in 2007 described a crucial role for such a platform, which provided essential updates and communicated relevant information to the community and emergency responders.
Perhaps most exciting are innovative endeavors into community journalism represented by Oakland Voices and Sacramento Voices, funded by the Oakland Tribune and the California Endowment. They train residents to explore and expand locally oriented coverage that focuses on a specific region.
These new ventures concentrate on how stories affect local audiences and how to engage that audience. Foundations, new entrepreneurs and legacy news organizations are exploring these innovations and the changing demographic about how we want and get our news.
All this takes time to evolve and in the meantime, we must continue to support the infrastructure we now have. We have to be patient as these new vehicles coalesce and we determine what’s working.
Journalism is a long-game investment to build capacity. We will all benefit from thorough storytelling. Oscars are nice, the truth is better.
David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”