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Democracy and the Informed Citizen


On September 22, Missouri Humanities, in partnership with the University of Missouri System, hosted a virtual public program through Zoom. “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” featured a panel discussion that explored the critical role the humanities and journalism play in shaping the judgements and opinions of citizens in a democratic society. The partners brought students together with rural and urban viewers from across the Show Me State, uniting an ideologically diverse crowd around the importance of quality journalism in support of an informed citizenry.

MH expanded its partnerships with humanities departments at University of Missouri System institutions in Kansas City, Rolla, Columbia, and St. Louis. KBIA Public Radio, the Kinder Institute for Constitutional Democracy, and the Missouri Press Association joined the effort to engage residents in the discussion. Guests were greeted with words of welcome from Missouri Humanities Executive Director Steve Belko and University of Missouri System President Mun Choi. Michael Gerson, Tony Messenger, and Ruby Bailey served as the evening’s panelists.

Michael Gerson is the author of Heroic Conservatism. He is a nationally syndicated columnist at The Washington Post who appears regularly on the PBS NewsHour and Face the Nation. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush, serving as Assistant to the President for Policy and Strategic Planning.

Tony Messenger, by contrast, offers a progressive commentary for the St. Louis region as a reporter and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His reporting on Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. His win in 2019 recognized him for “bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail.”

Ruby Bailey is a professor at the University of Missouri–Columbia. She serves as the Executive Editor at the Columbia Missourian and Missouri Community Newspaper Management Chair at the Missouri School of Journalism. Bailey worked for the Detroit Free Press for 16 years and became a Washington correspondent, where she covered news of interest to Michigan readers. After that, she joined the Sacramento Bee. Bailey has experience covering and editing all aspects of local news, including business, entertainment, and feature coverage.

The moderator of the discussion, Janet Saidi, Assistant News Director at KBIA radio, guided the panelists through a conversation about the increasingly polarized media landscape. She also asked the panelists about the importance of media literacy, the Supreme Court, the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 protests, and the Thomas Jefferson statue on the University of Missouri’s campus.

To start, Tony Messenger talked about polarization as a unique challenge to reaching new readership. One approach to addressing the problem is to look for common ground. “One of our biggest challenges as journalists is just to be honest to our readers,” Messenger said. He also said that common ground reminds readers of the role of journalism in democracy. “I try to find issues that could unite people to develop a relationship with those readers who would typically disagree with me—encouraging them to continue reading what I write and remind them we aren’t the enemy of the people,” Messenger said.

Ruby Bailey echoed his thoughts, saying, “It’s the duty of journalism not to try and create the narrative ourselves but to do the due diligence, reporting, and offer context that let our audience know what this means for us as a nation.” She went on to say, “It’s important that we provide context for a community, not simply write headlines that speak to the worst moment of an event or movements. We must choose how we frame stories.”

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
—Philip L. Graham

The panelists tackled the challenges of social media, specifically Twitter, in combatting misinformation. Gerson said that Twitter, like many social media platforms, has the unfortunate ability to “increase the velocity of lies.” “I’m a conservative but also a supporter of mainstream media, because the media fact-checks. It’s a profession, not an activity. There are consequences for inaccurate reporting, and things are corrected and confronted,” Gerson said.

Diversity was the final point of discussion for the evening. Bailey brought up that the idea of diversity is not just aiming for a specific number but achieving true inclusion, from policies to workflows, but especially with sourcing. She said, “If we are doing our jobs correctly, we will help folks have a voice of their own. We will help to amplify those voices if we are stepping outside of the parts of the community that we are comfortable with or that we tend to gravitate toward for whatever reason.”

Tony Messenger called for truth in reporting and elevating stories of communities that are often underserved by the media. Gerson ended the event on a similar note, bringing the conversation full circle by speaking to the importance of good journalism in a democratic society:

One of the rarest, most valuable commodities in any political community, particularly in democracy, is empathy,” Gerson said. “I think journalism plays a very important role in imagining ourselves in other circumstances. In some of the best journalism, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And I think that’s an underestimated element of what journalism does for a free society.