Monday, January 30, 2017

The first challenge to overcome is not a lack of reliable information and resources, it is teaching people where to find reliable information and resources

While most of us have mixed feelings about the mainstream news media for good reason, the thought of it becoming completely invalidated as an institution—or disappearing entirely—is a terrifying thought. Yet, weakening the media in either of these two ways appears to be what certain national leaders are now trying to do, according to veteran media specialists and social-justice advocates who attended the first 2017 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-cultural issues (MPC).

That being said, there are things that we as individuals, and as representatives of certain constituencies, can do to help assure that our government and the potential impacts its policies will have on our society don’t become completely opaque to us until it’s too late. 

Facilitator David Crumm cited a New York Times article in which our nation’s new chief strategist referred to the news media as the “opposition party.” Regardless of the fact our news media is in need of reform, branding mainstream media as a public enemy creates several problems.

“When you make the press your opposition party,” Interfaith Leadership Council Chairman Bob Bruttell said, it becomes “easy to dismiss everything they say” as taking a biased side—such as the “whiny liberal who didn’t get his political way”—instead of striving to report as objectively as they know how to.

Crumm also pointed out that part of what is weakening people’s trust in the media is the proliferation of fake news, by “Internet trolls” who have no moral compass guiding them. When asked by interviewers if it bothers them that their falsehoods are actually hurting people, they reply that they don’t care, as long as their stories get them readers and that they continue to get paid to produce such stories. Since this is what we’re working with, Bob Bruttell called on us to become “ethical geniuses” to counteract the “evil genius” at work here.

The role of public media is to connect people, Crumm pointed out—to get the word out not just about important major events, but important everyday resources that people need to help maintain and improve their communities. “What’s being threatened here is our ability to build community,” Crumm said, and our focus in coming together as an interfaith, intercultural alliance is building communities.

The first problem is not so much a lack of resources, said Amy Smolski of Macomb County Community Mental Health; the problem is lack of reliable information about what these resources are and how to access them. Since the media is typically where people go to get information about events and services in their areas, the illusion that resources are not available is likely to increase. It is also true that some resources will disappear due to changes in the government’s funding priorities, which makes our efforts all the more important to help foster the free flow of accurate information.

One response to this information need is, created by Michigan’s Community Mental Health Authority as a “community well-being clearinghouse” to help people “find activities, resources, support and belonging” near them. The Commonwealth program helps “connect the various grain-silos,” as Smolski put it, meaning helping various organizations that don’t always network with each other find out about each other’s offerings. For example, it can help clients of an organization dedicated to the religious or educational needs of a certain ethnic minority group become aware of housing, health, or employment-assistance programs that are available to them through other agencies.

The homepage for Commonwealth gives clear instructions for how to use the service, including how agencies can post their listings and how individuals can search the directory. While Commonwealth’s listings are fairly broad, the service carefully filters out political listings (you may find events about voter education, but not about endorsing a particular candidate), and for-profit listings (since the target audience is underserved populations, a listing for a health spa open house to attract new clientele would not be accepted).

Another hopeful development we heard at this meeting is that some science and advocacy groups are rushing to download and archive educational information that is being removed from federal government Web sites. This information has historically been used by many educators, and, while the government still maintains it, it will no longer be readily available through government Web sites and will thus be harder to find out about and access.  (If I find out more about this organization and how to access its archives, I’ll let you know.)

In my next two posts, I dive deeper into the MPC group’s and its affiliated organizations’ commitment to help both rebuild torn community ties, and create new ones, and how our interfaith community is transcending not only religious differences but religion itself to help foster unity in diversity.

Image: Detail from "Girl on Fire" by Karla Joy Huber, 2014; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, highlighter

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