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Newton to Journalists: Focusing on the Story Isn’t Enough Anymore

In the digital age, journalists are required to don different hats; from multimedia to social media, there is an increasing amount of tools available for telling the story and sharing it. Still, it may not be enough. Research shows that Americans’ distrust of the media is at record highs, and even though social media has made it easier and faster for information to spread, it can be difficult to sort out truth from the deluge of rumors, facts, and everything in between.

At the Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting over the weekend, Eric Newton spoke about how focusing on the story just isn’t enough anymore. Newton, who is the senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, recounted how he asked 800 investigative reporters and editors if their work had significant social impact. Of course, all of them thought that it did. But asked if they thought the average American understood investigative journalism, only one hand went up. Most of them thought that it was not a journalist’s job to educate people about the importance of journalism.

Newton said that he has spent his entire life worshiping the mantra, “The story is all that really matters.”  Until now. “The story is not the only thing that matters,” he said. “A story by itself does not change the world. Someone must absorb it, share it, act on it and yes, even pay for it.” In order for stories to truly matter, he argues, news literacy is key, as is transparency, which can help facilitate dialogue and understanding within communities. “Sixty nine percent of America believes that if local newspapers no longer existed, it would be no big deal,” he said, which is why now, more than ever, journalists have an obligation not just to say, “Hey! Listen to this story!” but “Hey! This is why you should listen to this story!”

Transparency and open journalism can be a great way to engage communities in the process of journalism. The Knight Foundation has a new policy for grants: in order to receive one, news providers must disclose their major donors. By opening up, “we could engage millions,” said Newton, and beyond helping people see why journalism matters, it would help journalism itself. “If we truly listen, and engage, we will gain insights into why some of our investigations produce instant impact and others cause absolutely nothing.”

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