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News Literacy Week: Political Coverage Town Hall with Mike Dennison

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 11:20 AM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 10:12:15-05

HELENA — The Montana Television Network (MTN) and our parent company the E.W. Scripps Company has partnered with the News Literacy Project for National News Literacy Week.

Coinciding with the 67th Session of the Montana Legislature, MTN hosted a town hall discussion with Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison and Montana Politics students at Carroll College. The goal of the discussion was to answer questions from students and have a conversation with them about their thoughts on political coverage, covering state government and ethical, fact-based journalism.

Many of the students had questions about disinformation on social media, media bias and spotting the difference between news and opinion articles.

KTVH complete News Literacy interview

“In 2018, 62% of the people polled in Gallup stated that the media outlets report misinformation. What is the process an article goes through in order to be deemed as accurate and publishable?” asked Carroll Junior Ian Gutierrez.

“If say you have a young reporter, an editor is going to work with them on who to talk to and read the script before it goes and check it,” Dennison responded to the student. “I’ll often go back through my script before I post it and double check things to make sure they were right.”

Even the most seasoned reporters can make errors or misinterpret what was said by someone during an interview. When that happens, the responsible action is to run a retraction or correction in a clear way for the viewers.

Carroll Junior Eleanor Ferrone asked, “When you’re reporting do you ever feel caught between your own political position and favorability and the story that we’re covering and how do you navigate a situation like that?”

“I certainly have views on political issues, but I’ve done this long enough to not let it influence my writing,” said Dennison. “Let’s take the issue of abortion for example. When I do a story on abortion, I’m going to talk to people who are on one side and the other. I’m going to report the facts and that’s that. What I believe doesn’t enter into it at all.”

A core mission of MTN is to report the facts in an even-handed manner and investigate for the truth. Company guidelines for journalists state that they should not attempt to sway the opinion of anyone, but rather present the facts to the best of their ability and let the viewer make up their own mind.

However, if a statement that is being made by an individual is categorically false it is a journalist’s ethical responsibility to clearly state when reporting on the individual making the false statement.

There are organizations with political agendas that will make false or misleading statements to intentionally sway the viewer. It can be difficult sometimes to tell the difference between a fact-based article from an opinion piece, or even a biased site that is masquerading as a legitimate news organization.

Inflammatory, emotionally charged language by the author in the article can be a giveaway it is not just fact-based reporting. Cross checking the article against other news sources across the spectrum of outlets can also be a way to measure the validity of the article.

“Should news or media be held accountable for providing incorrect information that incite actions or violence based on falsehoods?” asked Carroll Junior Griffin Cox.

“Yes, they should be and they can be through the courts,” explained Dennison. “For instance there are lawsuits being filed right now by the owners of some of these voting machines that claim to be slandered by media organizations.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a powerful document and generally seen as the gold standard for journalistic freedom. However, it does not protect any individual or organization that makes categorically false statements that can damage or harm others.

“You mentioned the Scripps parent company in your introduction, and brought up that they are primarily based in Cincinnati. Have you ever experienced any sort of pushback or butting of heads with superiors based outside of the region that might have a different idea of what reporting they want to see than what you're finding to be worth reporting on in Montana?” asked Carroll Junior Tom Trangmoe.

“[Scripps] are pretty hands off,” replied Dennison. “There is collaboration among us, we all work for the same company as far as statewide issues and what to cover. But as far as the national company, they have directives or guidelines they may want us to pursue but as for stories to cover, no.”

An example of a Scripps directive that was handed down to the local stations is this National News Literacy Week piece. Scripps asked local stations to participate in some fashion, but never dictated the specific content they wanted covered. The content and topic were left up to each station.

Scripps also had internal policy on how a certain style for fact-checking political ads during the 2020 election. Dennison had already been fact-checking in his own style and explained it was what his viewers were used to. There was no pushback from Scripps and trusted his method for the Montana viewers.

More information about National News Literacy week can be found here.