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Messaging is a challenge. But without messengers, it’s impossible.

BY: KATE BASSETT

I once wrote an obituary for a pet pig. In that same paper I also wrote about important city policy discussions, celebrated an ordinary citizen with extraordinary ideas, or planted seeds for community organizations that are thriving now. 

I spent more than 20 years writing for a family-owned, small town newspaper. I can say with certainty: locally-based reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. But real local news needs trusted community messengers who are intentional about lifting up factual, relevant content.

With so many online bad actors spreading disinformation, we can only get so far by debunking twisted facts. We need a playbook that goes beyond telling the truth. That is why we at COURIER developed Good Info Messengers as part of that strategy. This new model of organizing melds the best principles of advocacy with civic journalism to help win the information war and increase the flow of good, strategic information online. 

I know some newsrooms may balk at the idea of training volunteers to engage with and share the content they create. However, the evergreen rule of relevant stories finding their audience ignores two modern developments: paywalls and social media. Readers are less likely to pay for news and are increasingly getting the majority of their information from online social platforms.

We know disinformation spreads far faster than real news. Quality content alone is no longer enough to break through the noise – and not just on a national level. Communities are being torn apart by disinformation. The panic, anger, and mistrust it creates simultaneously suppresses civic engagement and froths up a new, misinformed faction steered by politically-motivated cultures of resentment. 

By teaching communities  how to use social media platforms as tools to share quality news, Good Info Messengers help shape the information diet of people within their sphere of influence. This theory of change has a goal bigger than slowing down disinformation. We also want to increase civic participation, and ultimately, help restore trust in the foundations of democracy (and yes, in journalism, too). 

Good Info Messengers is, at its core, a simple idea that may help reduce an algorithm deficit quality news often faces. But it’s also about building connections, re-learning how to have civil dialogue, and most importantly, entering into a two-way conversation with local news.  

Subscribers of my small town paper did not always agree with the stories we chose to publish…or chose to ignore. They would come to the office or pick up the phone, write frustrated emails or Letters to the Editor. But also, they would keep coming back, week after week, to read. 

Why? We had relationships. We saw each other in the grocery store, or at school pick-up, or a non-profit fundraiser. We built a rapport around a mutual love of place. We could agree to disagree without falling into conspiracies or reducing each other to that dreaded sense of “other” we know all too well today.

That era of small town news started fading with the rise of social media. We  fell prey to the belief that good information will always rise to the top. We didn’t think to be proactive in building a grassroots movement to protect not only truth, but trust. Everyday, I witness the systematic destruction of faith in local government and public institutions in a town without a single stoplight. In 2021, I was sent screenshots of someone wanting to string me up in our nonexistent town square following coverage of the great school masking debate. Less than 24 hours later, I was in the grocery store picking out honeycrisp apples next to the person who posted that comment. He didn’t say a word.

That’s the shift. National rhetoric tinged by disinformation has reached our doorsteps. 

There is a growing movement to return to local news after a decade-plus of papers folding or being bought by large corporations. Without intentionally developing news verifiers within our communities, however, this renewed interest may be a nonstarter. 

Trust in media institutions is at an all-time low. Investing in local reporting without an innovative model – both to remove the stigma of elitism and to create a sense of pride in state-based journalism – may only deepen the divide.  When it comes to local coverage, we need newsrooms that can survive without a paywall, and we need to think like non-profits who invest in ambassadors for their cause. 

I believe in local news. I believe to repair what’s broken in democracy, we have to start with a well-informed electorate. I also believe that in order to breathe real, authentic life into that ideal, we need to first be in the places we are trying to serve. We need to all become Good Info Messengers. 

 

Kate Bassett is the National Organizing Director for Courier Newsroom — a network of newsrooms across eight U.S. states. Prior to joining COURIER, Kate was a political and community organizer and also spent two decades reporting for a local newsroom in northern Michigan.

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Democrats Won the Election. So Why Does Only Half of the Country Believe It?

BY: TARA MCGOWAN

Depending on what news you consume- or what social media platforms you hang out on, you may not know that the historic 2020 presidential election is, in fact, over. President-elect Biden won by a margin of votes more than twice as wide as that of his predecessor, and will be sworn into office on January 21st. President Trump has very publicly refused to concede to reality, and only a handful of elected Republicans have publicly accepted the outcome. The collective delusion of elected Republicans is not representative of their constituents however, as more than half of all Republicans say that Biden won the race. But a more troubling trend is starting to gain traction.

According to a recent Morning Consult poll, a shocking seven in ten Republicans don’t believe the election was free and fair. This partisan divide of trust in our elections is no accident, but the result of a deliberate strategy. For months, Trump and his administration have been laying the groundwork with one clear goal: to protect their power at all costs, even if the cost is our Democracy.

While we knew this could happen, too many Democrats didn’t see it coming. Through hubris, denialism (or both) many prominent voices on the left believed that this election was an open and shut case against a flailing president, and that Joe Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot would deliver a resounding rebuke of Trump and all he stands for. It’s painful to admit but the numbers don’t lie: over 70 million Americans did cast their votes for a second term of Trump. That’s not enough to keep him in power, but it is enough for us to be struck by their power.

The power of this bloc shouldn’t have felt like a surprise. The dangerous myths that are still circulating that claim that “the election results aren’t true” are being spread by the same voices and through the same channels that helped deliver Trump 63 million votes in 2016 and another 72 million votes in 2020.

Fueled by powerful conservative voices like Ben Shapiro and outlets like The Daily Caller that reach tens of millions of followers online every day, right-wing media have been using misinformation to cultivate and reinforce voters’ support of Trump for years. By spreading conspiracy theories and outright lies, these digital-savvy channels work lockstep to surgically influence the opinions and behavior of millions of Americans, drawing them into an alternate reality where facts don’t matter and the only source you should trust is Trump himself. Those efforts have paid dramatic dividends — both financially and politically.

Pandemic misinformation started in the early spring of 2020, seeded directly by the President. Right-wing outlets — online and through talk radio and Fox News — amplified this misinformation at dramatic scale, resulting in large numbers of Republicans refusing to wear life-saving masks, putting millions of Americans at risk and slowing any hope of economic recovery. Baseless conspiracy theories about “liberal pedophile rings” and “radical socialist” coups jumped from Americans’ news feeds to their group text threads, dinner tables, and ultimately, ballot boxes. And, now, in the weeks following the election, the posts with the most engagement on Facebook scream election fraud — from the same usual suspects.

Though this election also saw Democrats step up their digital investment and tactics in ways that undoubtedly contributed to Biden’s victory, the harsh reality is that those efforts are not sufficient on their own. Paid advertising is not how the majority of misinformation is spread online, so when campaign media budgets dry up or political ads are arbitrarily banned by platforms like Facebook, as they are today, Democrats have no recourse or lever to counter the disinformation actively gaining traction online.

The always-on conservative media ecosystem not only ensured another too-close-for-comfort election at the top of the ticket, but effectively kept Democrats on the defensive in hundreds of Senate, House and down ballot races across the country. For Democrats to blame any one message or tactic for these losses would be reductive and destructive when the media ecosystem they are actually competing with exists to misinform and inflame Americans to vote against them — regardless of their agenda or the facts. Given their dramatic reach through social media, conspiracy theorists like Ben Shapiro are the new mainstream media that candidates and parties must contend with — and this new ecosystem is only going to get more volatile in the years to come.

The reason that Democrats still find themselves losing the information war after winning the presidential election is clear: we’re still not fighting on the same battlefield Trump and the Right are — and the field they’re fighting on is one where the vast majority of Americans are getting their information. As long as Democrats continue to over-rely on cyclical paid advertising to get their message to voters rather than building online communications infrastructure that can communicate to voters year-round, we will remain at the whim of narratives driven by the Right.

This is not an argument to stoop to Republicans’ level to win the information war, either. We can tell the truth. We can reveal and counter the lies. We can compete and win with the facts — and with the powerful stories of Americans impacted most by the decisions being made for them in Washington. What we can’t do is win real and sustainable political power if we show up to the wrong game.

As Trump continues to deny us the concession we all crave and buy time to plot his own pardon, raise his bailout moneyor build his own media empire, Democrats need to think hard about how we move forward. Winning the election was a good and necessary first step, but having President Biden in the White House will not silence Trump or put a stop to the disinformation machine that propelled him to power. It’s time to get serious about building a modern media infrastructure that engages Americans year round, online, with the facts and stories that counter the lies — and to begin the critical work of rebuilding trust in our government, elected officials and one another. If we don’t, we may still very well lose the democracy we just narrowly secured the opportunity to save.

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