Civic Engagement Expert Chris Satullo speaks at NCC

Cries of “fake news,” partisan bickering and tragedies woven around political agendas are all the news media seems to be; that view doesn’t change once on stage but it’s easier to alter the script from the stage as speaker Chris Satullo proved during his presentation at NCC’s main campus on September 26 sponsored by The Commuter.

Satullo is an expert in civic engagement who worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and WHYY, NPR member station in Philadelphia and is now leading “Draw the Lines PA” an initiative to combat gerrymandering in Pennsylvania by placing power in the hands of citizens.

Satullo acknowledged the problems of the news media, and highlighted solutions actively being implemented. Speaking about “bad habits” in how newsrooms choose stories to report, Satullo said, “Problems are interesting, solutions are not.”

He elaborated by using TV news as an example, saying “We’ve gotten so addicted to conflict they actually book the shows with people who are the most strident, the most unwilling to admit that there are any facts on the other side of the issue.”

This structure increases ratings for the news networks but it’s not practicable for informing the citizens, especially when the people with the information are just yelling at each other on screen.

He said, “How are you supposed to, as a citizen, understand whatever it is they’re talking about?” The answer, Satullo said, is in “solutions journalism” that addresses problems in society. “The news is not things are bad, the news will be things are getting better,” Satullo said.

Satullo identified organizations such as the Documenters Program by The City Bureau in Chicago and Detroit and Hearken in Chicago working to improve journalism for citizens. The Documenters Program recognizes that local governmental meetings lack media coverage and that a solution lies in training ordinary people in the basics of journalism so that they can play a part in covering these important community meetings. Hearken works to solve “everyday mysteries,” Satullo said.

Citizens submit questions about normal things that they’re curious about to their local newsroom and the journalists set out, sometimes with the curious citizen, to find answers. Satullo said a journalist’s job is to care about the community they cover.

“If you don’t care about the community, the community is going to feel that.” On how caring for the community affects journalists’ objectivity, he said acknowledging biases to themselves and keeping these biases in mind while working is what a good journalist does.

“No person is without bias,” he said, “What you have in journalism is professional practice.” In a world where trustworthy journalists might be harder to identify, Satullo used his stage to rewrite the journalism script that the audience had become familiar with. He was sympathetic to their weariness of news media, while demonstrating that journalism is more than just what is mainstream.