Truth and Trust: Panel discussion on Alaska journalism looks at big picture

Whose job is it to speak on behalf of a land as vast as Alaska? With more than 40 percent of the populace residing in Anchorage, it is hard to imagine there being some sort of common voice for the entire state. Journalists, therefore, have their work cut out for them. The Department of Journalism and Public Communications at UAA teaches skills needed to take on this challenge. Raising awareness of the program’s efforts is an important part of this. The event Feb. 6 at the Snow Goose Theatre was a step in that direction.

The public panel, “Truth and Trust: Alaska’s News Media in the 21st Century,” was a roundtable discussion moderated by the current and 19th Atwood Chair of Journalism, Mike Doogan. The table, which wasn’t actually round, served its purpose nonetheless. Seated to Doogan’s right were Steve MacDonald, special project manager at KTUU Channel 2 News, and JPC professor and NPR correspondent Elizabeth Arnold. To Doogan’s left were UAA journalism student and KRUA radio reporter Pearl-Grace Rasmussen, Alaska Dispatch reporter Jill Burke, and Kyle Hopkins, a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News.

The intimate Snow Goose Theatre, with its creaky wood floors and giant Alaskan-themed quilts adorning the walls, had a turnout of around fifty people.

JPC Department Chair Paola Banchero explained that the event is a fundraising effort so the community can have a stake in the Atwood Chair of Journalism. Funds for the chair go toward hosting nationally recognized journalists and educators as visiting professors at UAA.

“What do you think are the main problems with journalism today? Who wants to start?” Doogan asked, inviting some laughter from the audience to begin the discussion.

MacDonald said that with shrinking newsrooms there is a lot to do and fewer people to do it. Journalists are being forced to do a lot more than in the past.
Doogan, having been a columnist for nearly 14 years at the Anchorage Daily News, has witnessed long-term shrinking trends.

“I can remember when I was first at the Daily News, there were 30 reporters because of the newspaper war that was going on. I think there’s seven or eight reporters now,” Doogan said.

Hopkins said that as a consequence of these shrinking newsrooms there are fewer specialized beat reporters, and reporters tend to cover many different types of stories and a deep understanding of specific issues becomes difficult to achieve.

Arnold said she thinks the main problems are oversaturation and speed of media.

“There’s such a race to get it out because you’re competing against so many entities and so many platforms. The downside of that is with speed you risk accuracy, fairness and context,” she said.

Burke echoed these sentiments saying the race to get material out creates the potential for shallowness in reporting and lack of quality.

Doogan then asked what people see happening in the next five years technologically. He likened trying to find a specific thing on the internet to trying to get a drink of water from a firehose. Much of the rest of the roundtable discussion focused on this technological firehose. Is there any reason to strive for original content and do investigative journalism when so much is just a mouse-click away? Does the immediacy of the internet make for lazy journalism?

“Journalists are not lazy. They’re the ones in the front row trying to dig for the story,” Rasmussen said.

The Q-&-A period following ran longer than the discussion itself. Much of the Q-&-A dealt with the increasing difficulty in obtaining public records, such as the denial of Freedom of Information Act requests, and the hurdles to taking action against these violations. There were parallels drawn between the lack of information available during the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the recent Kulluk drill rig incident. Near the end of the evening, Vic Fischer, signer of the Alaska Constituion, had a question of journalists working today.

“How do they break through the wall that’s been built around state government?” he asked.

Burke said, “I think you change it by being unrelenting and writing about it frequently and raising public awareness to the point where the public doesn’t tolerate it.”

Doogan put his foot down ending the discussion with hands still in the air prompting more dialogue,

“I’m gonna have to cut this off. I think were a half-hour overtime anyway. I don’t know who’s payin’ for this place, but it’s not me,” Doogan said, ending the first panel discussion at the Snow Goose Theatre.

Written by Evan Erickson