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What is journalism’s role in the age of social media?

Fake news is a phrase that wasn’t uttered in April 1997 when the Red River swamped the neighborhoods of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn.

Liz Fedor

When my Grand Forks Herald colleagues and I reported on the devastating flood damage and the fire that ravaged 11 downtown Grand Forks buildings, nobody took to social media to attack our news stories. After tens of thousands of residents fled their homes because of the onslaught of water, they turned to the news media to learn when the water would recede and when they could return to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods.

Most of our newsroom staff remained in the Red River Valley to report on events as they unfolded. We worked out of a makeshift newsroom in a Manvel, N.D., school and several of us felt fortunate to have a place to sleep on the floor in a house outside Manvel.

Kept publishing, thanks to Pioneer Press partnership

The Herald’s downtown offices were flooded and one of our key buildings was merely rubble after the fire was extinguished. The day of the fire, some of my Herald co-workers with copy editing and page layout skills flew out of Grand Forks to set up shop in the St. Paul Pioneer Press newsroom. The helping hand from the Pioneer Press meant everything to us at the Herald because our world was falling apart.

Our partnership with the Pioneer Press allowed us to keep publishing. The Herald was printed in St. Paul, flown to Grand Forks and then distributed at regional centers in North Dakota and Minnesota where flood evacuees were staying.

Twenty years ago, the country was less polarized and people did not live in like-minded digital silos.

People turned to the Herald

When people returned to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to muck out their basements and reassemble their lives, they turned to the Herald for accurate information and to take part in the public debate about how to rebuild the cities.

At the time, I was the Grand Forks city government reporter and I chronicled the many tough choices that faced public officials. They needed to decide where to draw the lines for permanent flood protection and what public investments to make to help flood victims, rejuvenate the economy and restore the infrastructure.

During the months of deliberations, some citizens contacted me because they felt local government officials were ignoring their concerns or perspectives. I wrote about their issues and the politicians responded.

When the mayor said she had received a large anonymous contribution and could use the money to fund lobbying expenses, I knew the contribution’s source must be revealed to the public. I deduced the money came from a large construction company and verified the sourcing. Then I reported the contribution source because the company had received multiple large contracts from the city and was under consideration for more projects.

When an attorney told me that I should “get on board” and not ask questions about a city development proposal, I told him it was my responsibility to ask questions on behalf of citizens.

No substitute for in-depth reporting

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Grand Forks flood this month, I cite these examples of journalism accountability reporting because we need serious journalism now more than ever.

We cannot solve many of today’s vexing problems through Twitter or other social media channels. There isn’t a substitute for in-depth reporting and there are good reasons why all citizens should cherish the First Amendment that safeguards the role of a free press in our country.

Denigrating the news media has become a popular sport. But it is at our own peril if we weaken institutions that are essential for providing fact-based information and promoting intelligent debate in our communities.

While the news media face financial challenges and negative salvos from some citizens, we can all be heartened by the fact that there are still many dedicated journalists who are holding fast to journalism values and pursuing the truth.

Optimism increased

In late March, my optimism for the journalism profession was increased when I attended a meeting at Minnesota Public Radio in downtown St. Paul. Key executives at MPR brought together journalists from the Twin Cities and rural Minnesota as well as news organizations focused on covering communities of color.

I saw tremendous commitments from those in attendance to give voice to Minnesotans from every race, ethnicity, income level and political persuasion. By coming together as a journalism profession, I felt a common sense of mission to do our best work to serve our communities.

When I covered the Grand Forks flood and its aftermath, I knew what I did was extremely important to the people in my community who fell along the entire political spectrum. In 2017, we need to take advantage of the public square that is provided by credible media organizations.

If we isolate ourselves on social media in like-minded camps, we will remain divided. We need to understand each other and have common facts before we can tackle community problems. Social media is not a substitute for real journalism in a functioning democracy.

Liz Fedor is an editor at Twin Cities Business magazine. The Grand Forks Herald staff won a Pulitzer Prize in the public service category for its coverage of the 1997 flood.

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