Column: Journalism vital to local democracy

A vivid memory of my first post-college job—working as a daily newspaper reporter in Texas—is of standing in a Judge Advocate General’s office on a large military base, trying to determine the extent of a theft ring involving military supplies.

Essentially a large legal office, it was where a military public affairs officer hoped to convince me that the ring was limited to the three or four cases that had already been publicly confirmed.

Gazing at a pair of whiteboards on the wall, each full of soldiers’ names, actions they’d been charged with, dates, and other information, I noticed about a dozen more cases of supply theft seemed to be among those actions.

Pointing to it, I asked the officer, “What about those?”

“Oh,” he said. “Those.”

“Those” still remind me of two important points. Journalism, whether local or international, is about giving us the information we need to function in an open, democratic society. If we don’t seek that, we may well open ourselves to all sorts of misdeeds.

Since then, I’ve moved on to the academic world, eventually ending up in Stevens Point, where I thought I had landed my dream job teaching journalism. Like many dreams, that one looks a little different now; I teach public relations and professional communication, largely because of changes to our curriculum that required a shift of focus.

Those changes were prompted partly by shifts in American journalism and demand for journalism education. What remains constant is our need for solid, fact-based, multi-perspective, and relatively bias-free reporting of the type that continues to diminish in many communities. Although there are some signs of continued strength in some places and some segments of the industry, there’s also lots of reason for concern.

We know that where watchdogs don’t exist—whether committed journalists, citizens who ask questions and attend meetings, or organizations of many types—the doers of misdeeds can rampage through our budgets, our policies and procedures, and our lives in general. We’ve all seen these miscreants in action, whether in local, state, or national government or just in our own workplaces.

Keeping an eye on wrongdoers isn’t just the responsibility of reporters. It’s also up to the public to support forms of public and private oversight. That includes demanding more of journalism, just as we demand more of our leaders.

But it also means we should demand more of ourselves in sustaining a strong marketplace of ideas for a healthy democracy, and that often starts with supporting local journalism.

Steve Hill is on the professional communication faculty at UW-Stevens Point.