Are reporters informing the public well enough amidst state's financial crisis?

By Amanda Robert | Mar 6, 2017

Can the average Illinoisan identify the opportunity costs when the state sends 25 percent of general revenues to its massively under-funded public pension systems?

Illinois State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, one of the most fiscally conservative members of the General Assembly, believes there are two ways law makers can help citizens understand the ongoing financial crisis in Illinois.

One is by pointing out that the $400 million needed just for teachers’ pensions could fund a lot of other needs in Illinois, including Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants for nearly 700,000 college students, more than 10,700 new teachers or 320 miles of resurfaced four-lane highway.

“Or, secondly you can just wait for the collapse when government cannot borrow any more money and folks lose their jobs, then maybe the electorate wakes up,” Ives said.

Illinois State House Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton)  

Ives says that when she tries to inform the public through town hall meetings, less than a dozen people show up.

“I have three town halls scheduled this month and if I am lucky, maybe 100 people will show up even after having sent media alerts out, posting on Facebook and e-mail, and sending out district-wide robo calls,” she said.

Ives explains that most people are too busy, or have given in to the idea that “nothing will change” or “all politicians are corrupt.”

“I find most people have little understanding of the issues that created our budget crisis, the possible solutions and their implications, and the truth that Illinois is way outside the norm in terms of financial stability compared to other states,” Ives said. “To steal from an old saying, you can offer the information, but people can still refuse to take it in.”

In a state like Illinois, with its history of complicated financial struggles and political battles, what is the responsibility of media that is supposed to serve as watchdog? Are reporters telling all of the stories that need to be told, monitoring the conduct of government officials and alerting citizens when they have acted irresponsibly or improperly?

Diana Rickert, vice president of communications at the Illinois Policy Institute, who previously worked as a journalist, contends that most citizens are aware of the culture of corruption and political machines. They realize that they pay immense property taxes and face massive public pension debt, now up to $130 billion in their state.

She says the media should not be complicit in the financial crisis or give public officials a free pass, particularly as Illinois saw record outmigration in the past year and lost more than 1 million people in the past decade.

“The very best journalists are skeptical of government and question everything they say, and journalists owe it to their readers to do this,” Rickert said. “Journalists should not be a publicity arm for local, state or federal government, or trade tough stories for access.”

Stephanie Craft, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, points out that the financial situation in Illinois serves as an example of polarization that is occurring across the country. She says the media has the responsibility of identifying things the public should know, and then getting public officials, business leaders or others in power to talk about them.

She says that role becomes more crucial when “you have two sides that are dug in,” like Illinois party leaders over the state’s budget.

“If they aren’t talking to each other, it makes it tricky for journalists, but also more of a priority for them to step in and try to get information from those sides that might be harder to get otherwise,” Craft said. “I feel like, as a citizen of Illinois, not only are the two sides not talking to each other, but they’re not talking to anyone.

“If there weren’t journalists pressing for answers, there would just be a whole lot of silence.”

Craft adds that citizens, as well as public officials, share in that responsibility. Citizens need to seek out a variety of sources of information and demand a certain level of performance from the media and public officials, she says, while public officials need to consider the importance of the media and not see its work as something negative.

She contends that the current level of trust in several different institutions, especially the media, is low. She says that puts reporters in a difficult position, because while they are trying to obtain information and present it in an understandable way, they are also fighting criticism about how they do their jobs.

Craft also says that when facing a public that may not trust them, reporters should consider being more explicit about their sources and methods. For example, she says, they should mention the people they tried to interview, even if they didn’t talk to them, and the parts of the story they don’t know, but are still trying to figure out.

“I think more of that might help, as a byproduct, educate people about the journalism news gathering process and help them understand better the news that they’re reading,” Craft said.

Craft adds that even in the current environment, where more people can quickly participate in creating and sharing the news through cell phone photos and video, and social media, reporters should appreciate that they are the only group committing a significant amount of time and resources to uncovering and disseminating information.

“There is a role that an institutional kind of press can play in being that entity that can try to hold those in power to account in a way that is harder, not impossible, but harder for a general mass of online people to do,” she said.

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