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A Challenging Year For Media

 September 18, 2020 at 9:46 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:01 The dangers journalists face here and across the country as the report in the streets, how they stand up to protect one another. What's behind the COVID-19 outbreak at San Diego state and what it means for all of us and an aerial ballet to be behind the scenes in the air war against California wildfires. I Mark Sauer the KPBS round table starts. Now Speaker 2: 00:29 [inaudible] Speaker 1: 00:33 Welcome to our discussion of the week. Stop stories. I'm Mark Sauer, and joining me on this remote version of the KPBS round table today, reporter John Wilkins of the San Diego union Tribune, Matt hall, editorial and opinion director for the union Trivium and Brendan [inaudible] editor in chief for the student newspaper, the daily Aztec telling the story of 2020. Hasn't been easy. Journalists are covering a highly polarized election clashing with law enforcement and trying to overcome misinformation campaigns. And of course, all of this during a pandemic that's led to even more job cuts in the industry. And most people working from home here to take a step back and discuss it all as Matthew Hall, editorial and opinion director for the San Diego union Tribune and of this month, the new president elect of the society of professional journalists. Matt, welcome back to the round table. Speaker 3: 01:23 Great to be here or be there. I don't know. I lose my sense of place. Speaker 1: 01:26 We are ever though. It's a remote world. Is it not? Well, let's start with your new role for those who don't follow the industry. What is the society of professional journalists? And what's your top goal is you're prepared to lead this national organization. Speaker 3: 01:38 Yeah, thanks for asking. I mean, SPJ is an organization that has been around since 1909. So it has a long history on the a hundred and fourth president. There's 103 whose shoulders I stand on in this role. And we're a national advocacy group. You know, we celebrate, uh, journalism, we advocate for journalists, uh, and we hold the powerful to account, right? So we're advocating for things like audio at the Supreme court, at their hearings, helping PIOs do a better job at giving information out, especially in this pandemic, you know, and, and we're a to Z, we're a shop that helps do a lot of things for journalism as president my, my big goal this year, I guess there's a couple that I want to do. I want to, I think this is a moment where journalists need to look internally at their shops at their outlets and make sure that they reflect their communities. Speaker 3: 02:28 Diversity inclusion has always been important, but in this moment, that's something that I really want to bring to the fore. And I also want to reach out to our campus chapters and our young journalists, like before I was sworn in, uh, I said on Twitter, look, I'm getting sworn in as president of this, of this group. And I'm really excited about it. I want to pay it forward. If there's 10 people out there, I want to go to art con convention, I'll pay for their convention costs. Uh, and within 48 hours, 10 journalists had raised their hand, mostly women, mostly journalists of color. And so I, I, I sponsored their conferences and they all said it was amazing. So this is also a time for journalists to help other journalists, younger journalists, especially Speaker 1: 03:05 I'll raise my hand. You can fly me first class. I'll get a nice hotel. So well, I'll tell you what, we don't have time today to cover all the challenges in the media. But in recent days, we've seen clear examples. Let's start with the incident last weekend in Compton, just North of here, where Josie Wang, a LA based public media reporter, she was violently attacked and arrested while covering the shooting of two Sheriff's deputies up there. How does an organization like SPJ advocate broadly for media rights stand up for reporters and an incident? Speaker 3: 03:34 Yeah, I was actually online when the first video of that incident came in. And so I personally started tweeting at, uh, LA County sheriffs saying, you know, this is, we need a better explanation. Obviously that situation was involved in unfolding quickly. What happened to those deputies was horrific, but that's no excuse to throw a journalist around like a ragdoll. She was whipped against the car and thrown on the ground. Five deputies were on top of her all the while, as you just said, she was saying, I'm a journalist KPCC I think she mentioned the organization about eight times, you know, we're here to support her. We're here to say that that is wrong and that the Sheriff's need to be held accountable. And we're here to stand up for all journalists. You know, we're doing law enforcement has a job to do. We respect that. We understand that, but we have a job to do as well. Speaker 1: 04:20 Well, it's good. SPJ is there for that because, uh, these days, and of course at any time, the first amendment is so critical and we've seen a lot of this during protests over the summers. They're concerned of a trend toward law enforcement disregarding first amendment rights when it comes to the meeting. Speaker 3: 04:36 I don't know if it's a trend. I mean, this has always been a point of friction. I mean the two of us have different jobs. I think what's happening now is you're actually seeing a reckoning in media that the default story and an issue involving police should not be the police version. I think partly that that should have always been the case, but partly police departments have invited them that on themselves. And that trust is an issue. Not only for the media, we've made some major self inflicted wounds and we need to account for that is correct our mistakes when they happen, but law enforcement has done that as well. And so now when you have an incident, journalists need to not just take the police view as the default, but hold up, uh, everyone equally and make sure we get to the heart of the matter and the truth of the matter. Speaker 1: 05:22 Now we're less than 50 days from the selection, which certainly is an underlying current, uh, everything we're talking about here 2016 was a year of misinformation online that shaped the opinion of a lot of voters. In this week. We saw a one day boycott of Facebook heavily criticized for not doing enough to rein it in how big of a challenge is misinformation and trust when it comes to having an informed public and a healthy demand. Speaker 3: 05:44 Oh, it's huge. I went, uh, virtually and gave a presentation on fake news, real problem for an eighth grade humanities class at golden Hill. Um, this is an important thing that journalists need to realize. It's a huge, it was a problem in 2016, it's only worse. Now journalists need to be aware of this and the public needs to be aware of this. And it's not just misinformation this year. I think an important point that needs to be made is that with the pandemic and voting happening many places largely by mail, that that means there is no such thing as election day. That's a misnomer, it's a month to vote and it could be weeks to count the votes. And so journalists need to do a better job of explaining that to the public, explaining that you'll be getting a mail ballot 30 days before the election, and that you need to take that seriously. And the mail delivery will be fine, but we all know that the mail delivery is a little slow right now. So if you really want to get your vote counted, maybe vote early and maybe even take it to one of these places where you can drop it off through the County registrar system. Speaker 1: 06:41 I think that's a critical point, especially when president Trump and the attorney general bill BARR, frankly, are trying to cast aspersions on mail and balloting and claiming it's fraudulent when it isn't. And we need to point that out, Speaker 3: 06:53 No, no widespread fraud in any shape or fashion. Uh, and in fact there are whole States that do it and have done it successfully. Speaker 1: 06:58 Yeah. And the polls today say a lot of Republicans, unfortunately are believing there is. And it's a real problem. It's up to us to cover that going forward. Well, the misinformation theme it's of course a part of this pandemic that we're dealing with. What do you hear from journalists about audience that, that refuse to believe facts and science? Speaker 3: 07:14 You know, it's a, it's a problem. And I think there, again, you just need to do your job and you do the work and push back. Like at that class that I was at a bunch of eighth graders in a, you know, in a chat, in a zoom call, you can imagine that it wasn't all serious, that they're making some quips in there. And one of them said, it's okay, COVID isn't real. And I stopped my presentation. I'm like, wait, wait, wait, no, no, no, no. You need to understand that the COVID-19 Israel, that 200,000 Americans have died, but the multiple factors more are going to have potentially longterm health implications for heart and lungs, et cetera. And so this is a real situation here. You know, young people may not have the same risk in terms of potential loss of life as, uh, certainly older folks. But as we saw from San Diego state, it only takes a few people making bad decisions to really cause problems for our community. Speaker 1: 08:01 Yeah. Ripple effect throughout San Diego. Now COVID-19 also brought the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes. How's the pandemic shaking up newsrooms and many of which were already being cut to the bone before this. Speaker 3: 08:13 Yeah. It's been brutal. I mean, you know, I'll be honest and a tough at the union Tribune we had across the board for lows, you know, but we kept working, we kept working through it. We've been for six months putting out a newspaper at homes. I think I've been in the office two or three times in that span. And it's weird to go into a ghost building. I kind of don't know if we'll ever go back, but the union Tribune is here to put up the news. Uh, KPBS is here to put out the news voices, San Diego and the television stations are here to put out the news and they're doing it in, in, in very difficult situations, either from home or going out on the streets to cover, uh, you know, pandemic related events or protests wearing masks, taking care of themselves. But it's hard, you know, it's hard, man, that the mental toll is, is difficult. Remember, as, as we all Speaker 1: 08:56 Know, you and I have been in newsrooms for a lot of years, it's a collaborative effort. You feed off the energy of each other and it's tough to do it as individuals. And there's a personal toll to covering the news, especially in 2020. What do you hear from your colleagues remotely at the UT and elsewhere about burnout and the weight of these challenges? Speaker 3: 09:12 Huge issue. I mean, I referenced the conference that we just had this past weekend at SPJ one of the panels involved with Southern California, dr. Tammy McCoy, or a bio who's, a therapist who works with first responders and has helped people really troubling, uh, emotional times, you know, and she said, it's okay to not to realize that it's not okay right now. So to, you know, and also to take a break, if you can take a day, take a day, if you can take half a day, take half a day. The problem for us in the news business is that many of us are plugged into it, you know, 6:00 AM to midnight, sometimes past midnight. So, you know, there are many days where I personally, aren't getting, I'm not getting a lot of sleep. I know a lot of my colleagues are putting out podcasts under blankets and in closets, you know, working from home with when there's an occasional wifi outage, uh, it's difficult, it's difficult. Speaker 3: 09:59 And we can't get together for a beer and, and, and complain about it, you know, but I think, you know, my team is doing amazing work. My, my peers at the UT and around San Diego and the country are doing incredible, incredible work at difficult times. And I'm just grateful for their work. We're, we're kind of first responders in a way to not to compare us to some of these other frontline workers that are doing incredible work from grocery workers to police officers and firefighters. But the news business is, is, and it's taken some blows during this, but it's really trying to get the real dope straight information to people at an important time. Speaker 1: 10:31 Absolutely is critical. And it's important for SPJ to be there and, and, and pushing all of this and protecting, uh, everybody's first amendment rights and our democracy as well. Speaker 3: 10:40 Yeah. I mean, I often say a free press. Isn't free journalism costs money, but less journalism costs society. And, you know, that means that this isn't a time for us to be asking people, to pay for subscriptions. It's a time for us to be explained to them that they are members like KPBS model, the voice, San Diego, Mara. Those are good models because they're building memberships and communities. And I think all news outlets need to be doing that. That's the way forward here is that we're in this together, you help local news outlets. You help your community. Yeah. Speaker 1: 11:07 We're all going to have to be vigilant in the, in the business. And of course, uh, just as citizens, because it's such a fraught time for our country and our democracy. I've been speaking with Matthew Hall president elect of the society of professional journalists. He's also editorial and opinion director of the San Diego union Tribune. Thanks Matt. Thank you, Mark. Appreciate it. San Diego is at risk of taking a step back and it's COVID-19 journey. Key metrics are slipping. And part of it is due to the scene at SDSU hundreds of cases in recent weeks. And now in order that all students get tested, this is becoming political with local leaders. Wondering if those numbers should be excluded from the county's overall picture and idea of flatly rejected by governor Newsome. Joining us with some insight into the mood on campus is Brendan [inaudible] editor chief for the student newspaper, the daily Aztec, welcome to the round table. Thanks for having me. Now, as of this recording, there are more than 700 COVID-19 cases among the campus community. Since school resumed a few weeks ago, older San Diego and people like me are scratching our heads saying, ah, these are college students. Why aren't they smart enough to understand the risk to themselves and to everyone and wear masks and socially distance what's going on on campus from your perspective? Speaker 4: 12:19 I think things have definitely improved since the first, the start of the semester, the state home order, the advisory for the college area and the neighborhood patrols SS is doing has definitely changed students' attitudes towards staying safe and staying inside. I think the first few weeks of this semester were probably the worst in terms of students disregarding public health guidance. I witnessed a lot of parties, large gatherings. You would see like, uh, during a typical semester you would see large like herds of students walking on college Avenue. And we were seeing the same thing the first weekend. And so I'm not necessarily surprised, but I think things are definitely getting better. Speaker 1: 12:56 Sounds like the message is getting through after this outbreak and all the publicity. You think peer pressure is, is involved. You hear pink people saying, Hey, you know, we need to distance where the mask, Speaker 4: 13:06 Uh, yeah, I think for sure students are definitely keeping each other more accountable these days. I think just the possibility of facing discipline through the university has really changed the attitude off campus, especially, and then on campus, just the signage everywhere students wearing masks definitely sends the message that the rules need to be followed. Speaker 1: 13:28 Latest byline is on this push by some to blame San Diego state as an isolated cluster that shouldn't be counted in the county's overall metrics. We've talked about that here on KPBS and the County supervisors are involved, even as we're talking here and meeting and seeing what they're going to do with state officials. Well, how does it feel to have political leaders essentially saying SDSU shouldn't count as part of our community Speaker 4: 13:52 Pretty disappointing. You see a lot of local politicians, tout STCU as this great economic engine, which undoubtedly it is. But as soon as it becomes inconvenient for them, they kind of jumped ship. I think what they are considering is how this makes students feel these past few days, we've seen that SDCs hands are essentially tied when it comes to how far they can go to control students, living off campus, this push to exclude sec cases. Isn't giving students many reasons to trust the County when it's the County that really needs to step up and take responsibility. Speaker 1: 14:24 Of course, you're writing stories about this. Are you getting much response, people talking about it or responding online to what you're writing in the paper? Speaker 4: 14:32 Ah, we've got a couple comments on my most recent article and it's mostly alumni and business leaders saying that the County is right in what they're doing because STC students aren't at risk of being hospitalized or straining the healthcare system. That these cases shouldn't be Speaker 1: 14:48 Well, it's interesting though, because of course we're all part of same community and there's a ripple effect. The UT today for, for example, had a story about a businesses near campus of being a little wary of students who might come in and, and they might be asymptomatic carriers. Uh, you see that story where of that, uh, that sentiment Speaker 4: 15:08 It's very well founded, but the data doesn't necessarily suggest that dr. Eric McDonald, the County health officer said that the likelihood that students are asymptomatic on is pretty low. I think it was at 11% a yesterday's press conference. And I think this push by the university to mandate testing for all campus residents will give us a better picture of whether that is true if students are asymptomatic. Speaker 1: 15:31 Right. And I wanted to ask about that, the mandatory testing for those who live on campus, how is that going so far? Speaker 4: 15:37 I think it's going pretty well. I was on campus today, actually talking to students after they got tested and they were generally pretty receptive. They thought it was a good idea. The main criticism they had was that they feel like it was a bit too late on sec part to mandate testing, right? Speaker 1: 15:54 It's not going to help what's happened so far and we'll just hope things turn around and it gets better going forward. Now, KPBS has reported on how the pandemic has upended the traditional college experience, the mental toll that takes on students. Uh, what about you? How has this changed your time at San Diego state university? Speaker 4: 16:11 It's definitely turned it upside down. I'm a senior. So this is definitely not the year I had imagined for myself really been getting me through the challenges and kind of this struggle of doing online classes. And this distance learning is kind of this, the idea in the back of my head that eventually we'll all get to the other side of this pandemic. And at the end, we'll be stronger for it. Speaker 1: 16:30 Your role at the daily Aztec is a as a leader and editor in chief, how have you and your team there adapted in recent months? So I'll get a report. The news Speaker 4: 16:39 We've definitely taken it in stride. I've tried to make sure that my team understands that this is a really good opportunity for growth. We focus more on our digital presence and also it's a really great learning experience. Reporting on breaking news. Having to do data reporting has been really interesting for myself to learn, but also being with my colleagues, learning it at the same time, you've really built this great network despite being completely virtual and remote. Speaker 1: 17:07 Plus you're performing a public service in the midst of a public health crisis. That's gotta be gratifying, right? Speaker 4: 17:14 I think oftentimes a lot of people discount student journalists and student media as just being kind of learning and not necessarily in the thick of it, but these past few weeks, the daily ESSA has definitely in my opinion, shown that we're here. And we were definitely here as a true trustworthy source for students, but also the community, because at the end of the day, no one knows STCU like we do because we're living it. Speaker 1: 17:38 I certainly remember how vital my newspaper was at Michigan state university when I was taking journalism there, way back in the 17th century. So I know how important it is to students, the faculty and everybody on campus to be reading it. And I know it's gotta be gratifying to you to produce the paper every day. I've been speaking with Brendan [inaudible] editor in chief for the daily Aztec. Thanks very much, Brendan. Speaker 5: 18:00 Yeah. Thank you. Speaker 1: 18:02 As in any war, the populous fleeing a California wildfire, cheers. When the cavalry arrives firefighters on the ground are showered in everlasting gratitude by residents whose houses are saved by crews attacking flames with high pressure hoses and bulldozers and pickaxes and shovels. But what really sets hearts and camera shutters a flutter is aerial bombardment. The story behind the iconic imagery of aircraft dropping water and retardant though is complex. And joining me is the reporter whose narrative in the San Diego union Tribune this week. Explain just why John Wilkins welcome back to the round table. Speaker 5: 18:38 Thanks Mark. Happy to be here, Speaker 1: 18:40 John, start with a 62nd retrospective you, right? That the aerial salts on wildfires started way back in the 1930s and it's gotten ever more sophisticated in recent years, right? Speaker 5: 18:50 Well sure. In the early days, uh, it was it involved a filling of barricades with water and kicking them out or an open door and kind of praying that they would land on the fire and do something. Then, uh, we had a bunch of surplus of airplanes after world war II. So they started using those to try to fight fire as well. It was in the early days just water and they found water pretty much evaporated when they tried to drop it on the fire from above. So they've gotten of course ever increasingly sophisticated with this now. And they're, they're using a nimble helicopters are using seven 40 sevens. Uh, they're using those as sky cranes that have the nozzles that suck water out of lakes. So it's a, it's a very sophisticated operation. Now Speaker 1: 19:29 Learned a lot here from mistakes that were made in 2003, in 2007, we had terrible wildfires that year. They claim more than a dozen lives, thousands of homes in San Diego County, but those lessons were, were put the work in the meantime, right? Speaker 5: 19:41 Well, as often with bureaucracies, it takes a long time for things to take home. If we remember the Cedar fire in 2003, there was a Sheriff's helicopter that was ready to drop some water on. It was very small, late in the afternoon, but he was ordered back because there was a rule against flying anytime, uh, when it got close to sunset. So he was not allowed to, uh, to fly on that fire. It got really big overnight and of course took off and claim goal was lives that you mentioned 2007, a similar scenario, Cal fire got criticized because they were slow to get the helicopters in the air, especially at night to try and tackle that fire Speaker 1: 20:18 Fighting. These fires by air is ever more expensive as well. How expensive are we talking about? Speaker 5: 20:23 Well, you know, it's, uh, it's, uh, the city unveiled a new helicopter last December. That's about $20 million. It will fly at night. It joins to other helicopters that they have that, uh, sit in a hanger that's, you know, 13, $14 million to SDG. And he spends about $10 million a year now contracting to firefighting helicopters to be here year round. And of course, when he start calling in DC, tens seven 47 from Sacramento area, having a brief fuel for retardant in San Bernardino, those planes, thousands of dollars an hour to fly. So it gets very expensive, very fast. Speaker 1: 21:02 And aircraft were a big help in the Valley fire here in the past week or so. And that plus a break in the weather stop. What could have been much worse than that? The fire, which was just South of Alpine, right? Speaker 5: 21:13 Yeah. Southeast of Alpine. Yeah. We lost about 30 homes, maybe about 50 or 60 structures in all, but there are hundreds of, of structures in that area and it could have been, could have been much worse. Uh, the weather and the initial onslaught from the air, uh, helped knock that one back. But I think everybody thinks, you know, that we got pretty lucky that time, but you know, you by your own look, as I said, and that story and the County and the various agencies around town have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in fire prevention and suppression over the years to try to put themselves in a position where when they need to call a resources. Speaker 1: 21:49 And as you noted in your story, people love seeing the planes and helicopters swoop into douse the flames, but you quote fire officials is saying aircraft alone, never put out a fire. What do they mean by that? Speaker 5: 21:59 Well, especially a big fire. You have to have the crews on the ground. Um, you know, retardant is, is put out ahead of the fire. If you don't have the crews on the ground, close enough to move in. After a load has dropped to sort of cut the containment line with bulldozers and chainsaws and shovels, the flames will just jump beyond it. So you have to have that coordinated effort with the crews on the ground and in the air. What they like about using the aerial bombardment early now is it buys some time to get all those other crews on the ground. I think at the peak of the Valley fire, they had probably close to a hundred engines in the various nooks and crannies of that area, protecting houses and, uh, cutting firearms. Speaker 1: 22:38 And I wanted to turn to climate change as a factor in these big fires, raging in California, Oregon, and Washington state. This month, your story included a 2015 report by the us forest service addressing the impact of climate change. What were the conclusions there? Speaker 5: 22:52 Well, the big one that jumped out at me is if climate change brought fire seasons, that now are on average almost 80 days longer than there were in 1970. So, you know, climate change, hotter, temperatures drop dryer, brush it just sort of loads the dice for fire now. Speaker 1: 23:06 Yeah. And that's, that was a shocking report. And yet there still seems to be some controversy, at least in the national level, in the political, um, aspects of a certain party here, president Trump got into it this week with California leaders, including the California secretary for natural resources and governor Gavin Newsome. And they were restrained, but from since a lot of federal dollars are on the line, but confronted with facts about record heat and dried out trees and plants and extreme wind events. Uh, Trump wasn't having it. He claims it's just going to get cooler. You watch. And that quote, I don't think science knows actually now you and I have covered these fires for decades. Now we talked to a lot of people. Who've lost homes. Lot of firefighters, a lot of climate scientists, a dozen governor Newsome have a point when he says he respectfully has no patients left for climate change deniers in the face of such distress. Speaker 5: 23:55 Well, I think he does. And I haven't run into anybody who studies wildfire seriously in California and elsewhere, who does not think climate change is a driving factor in what we're seeing. I mean, you've had eight of the 10 largest fires in California history in the last decade. You've had six of the largest 20 happened just this year. I mean, every veteran firefighter comes back from a big fire shaking his or her head saying, Oh, I've never seen fire behavior like this. So yes, there are other factors, but we can talk about whether California and the federal government should be doing more controlled burns in the forest. I think the answer is probably yes, we should talk about whether people are, it's smart to have people building houses where they're building them up in the wild land areas. But I don't know anybody who says climate change is not big factor. Speaker 1: 24:42 One guy flew in on air force one this week. Unfortunately I think a, you know, it could be interesting to see we've got a debate coming up later this month with the Joe Biden, the Democrat of course, and president Trump. And we'll see if the questions emerge about climate change and how they're handled by each of these candidates and how, uh, reporters like us look at the, uh, the campaigns and the, uh, platforms going forward in the plans that are being put forth by each candidate. Uh, you think that debate is going to heat up in this particular election? Speaker 5: 25:10 Well, I certainly would hope that it would. I mean, you're seeing, you know, storm surges and hurricanes and other part of the country right now. I mean, I don't know how we can, we as a country, as a species, uh, can, can talk about the future without talking about climate change, Speaker 1: 25:24 See how it all plays out between now and the November election. I've been speaking with reporter John Wilkins of the San Diego union Tribune. John, thanks very much for joining us. You're welcome, Mark. A pleasure as always that wraps up another edition of the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, John Wilkins of the San Diego union Tribune, Matt hall, also with the union Tribune and Brendan [inaudible] editor in chief for the student newspaper, the daily Aztec, a reminder, all the stories we discussed today are available on our website, I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for listening today and join us again next week on the round table.

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2020 poses a gauntlet of challenges for journalists and the news industry, a student journalist's perspective on the COVID-19 situation at San Diego State University, and California's huge investment in firefighting aircraft.