Friday, March 4, 2016

One Evening, Many Insights @ #OneRiverMN

Last night we gathered for the second of several meetings in March for the One River, Many Stories project. The discussion topic for this week's panelists was Polymet: How Journalists Report On Tough Topics. I anticipated an excellent dialogue and was not disappointed. Special thanks to panelists Stephanie Hemphill, Aaron Brown and Marshall Helberger of the Timberjay Newspapers, and John Hatcher for serving as moderator for this week's discussion.

For those unfamiliar with the project, the overarching aim is to "See what happens when all the storytellers in one region turn their attention to one topic, the St. Louis River." Rivers are everywhere, and this is ours. What's intriguing is how this river connects the people of St. Louis County, which on a map consists of a vast region with seemingly disparate populations and demographics, yet runs through from its Iron Range headwaters to the shoulder of West Duluth.

UMD's John Hatcher introduces the panel.
On the table, front in center, the panelists had the task of answering this question: How do journalists navigate these kinds of polarizing issues, topics and themes?

For most of her career Stephanie Hemphill has served as news director at KUMD, and journalist for Minnesota Public Radio. She is now a freelancer. Aaron Brown is best known for his blog Minnesota Brown. And Marshall Helberger, along with wife Jody, runs three small newspapers serving the Iron Range communities of Tower-Soudan, Ely and Cook-Orr. We could not have had a better panel. (This last statement was opinion, not journalism.)

The timing for this discussion coincided with fresh news that cleared the way for the Polymet mining project to move a step forward and enter the next phase toward happening. The DNR yesterday ruled that the environmental review was adequate. The panel noted that Polymet supporters saw a victory and opponents saw it as a bump in the road. All agreed that journalism around hot topics like the Polymet mine has many challenges. "Accuracy is essential," Helberger said, noting that "misinformation spreads fast." He also stressed the importance of fairness and the importance of seeking common ground.

Though best known for his blog, Aaron makes his living teaching at a community college. He's grateful for his schooling and background in journalism which helped him to become a better blogger. One of Brown's credos is "seek to understand before trying to be understood."

The room was full as anticipated. Don't arrive late!
Stephanie Hemphill cited her three journalistic ruling principles as follows: fairness, seeking to understand and balance. She noted that sometimes presenting the fair and balanced perspective is difficult when one side refuses to return phone calls. "Companies that don't reply will look bad."

Hatcher's next question: How do you handle the polarization of views on an issue like this?

Hemphill said, "I try to maintain balance, not advocacy."

Helberger said they try to write for a general audience. They're aware that issues have diverse viewpoints. On a controversial issue like this one which has been so ongoing for so long, they know it is important to write about other things. This is not the only news story in the region. They also take pains to keep their opinions on the opinion page and out of the news.

Brown said, "It's different, but not that different, being a blogger. He emphasized the importance of being a person of good will. "When you mix news and opinion too much you will not perceived as a person of good will." It also gives more impact if he keeps opinions and reporting separate.

Hatcher zeroed in on some of Aaron Brown's recently expressed exasperation with the adversarial nature of the discussion on Polyment.

"It's frustrating because it's time to move on, to talk about other topics. This story has become an obsession for the whole region. [There's a] disproportionate amount of time spent discussing something that may or may not happen. There are many other issues that need to be talked about."

Ms. Hemphill, being Duluth-based, has not done many stories on Polymet, and added that "here in Duluth there are [currently] no issues that generate heat like Polymet does on the Range."

Mr. Helberger shared how getting people to sit around a table face-to-face in dialogue is useful. It's much easier to hate people you don't have to look straight in the eye.

When Aaron Brown writes he's aware that some of his readers are people he will be running into at the deli or grocery store. The Iron Range is a tight knit community. Families have been connected for generations. People don't like to disagree because they don't want to be disagreeable. "Polymet is portrayed as a political story, but I believe it is a cultural story. It's a set of communities that have strong identities with mining contrasted with people who perceive Northern Minnesota as a pristine getaway. There are two different [opposing] worldviews."

There were many additional comments and insights gained by the question and answer period afterwards. One gentleman from St. Louis shared how his brother had been a journalist in Viet Nam and missed one of the major stories even as it happened under his nose. Front row seats don't always give us the best view.

Personally, I am looking forward to seeing where this leads, and learning more about this river that feeds the largest freshwater lake in the world. 

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