Labeling the news with Donna King

Authored by Donna King

Donna King is editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has more than two decades of experience in television, radio, and print media. She is the former host of Triangle’s Morning News on WPTF and one of the founders of North State Journal, a statewide newspaper in North Carolina. While residing in the nation’s capital, King reported for and anchored ABC’s NewsChannel 8, America’s Voice Television Network, and Reuters Television North America. Donna lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She recently spoke with American Habits senior editor Ray Nothstine.

What is the role of the Fourth Estate in a free society, and how important is it for helping to foster a culture of self-government?

Donna King: I think what we’re seeing here in North Carolina is the demise—for lack of a better word—of local media. It’s very difficult to watch because local media provides a critical connection between the citizenry and their government. There just isn’t the revenue to keep that business model afloat in a lot of small communities.

What we do see is a consolidation of larger news organizations and the nationalization of news. Folks no longer get what they need from their local community news. Fortunately, there are still some strong local news outlets and reporters who believe in it and provide that information.

You have individuals providing coverage even on a volunteer basis just to get information out, and a lot of times, they are putting it up on their own websites rather than a traditional print newspaper. And for the record, I still love a print newspaper. Unfortunately, it’s cost-prohibitive for a lot of small organizations, but it’s critical for a free society to have access to what their government is doing, and there is a growing trend of watchdog groups and other nonprofits stepping in to stand in the gap for that lack of coverage.

I know this is broad. You can’t touch on everything, but where do you see some of the big media failures today? A lot of people have lost trust in institutions, and that includes the media. They rank the lowest in many surveys for trust. Why are they so distrusted by large segments of society?

King: With social media and an iPhone and being able to have that kind of information in your pocket, folks don’t trust the source in many cases because watchdog groups are doing their own media work or reporting, too. Consumers are starting to recognize that while liberal bias has always existed and people always accepted it as part of the process, now they’re much less trusting of it because they’re seeing even more evidence of it in newsrooms. Stories are being edited; they’re being chosen for coverage based on a preconceived narrative and a political ideology.

That’s always happened to a degree, but certainly, it’s happening more now with this generation of journalists compared to what we saw 30 years ago. You had more time, truthfully, to have folks in newsrooms step in and say, “Look, this isn’t the right way to do this.” Now we have a one-hour, two-hour news cycle in many cases. We used to have a 24-hour news cycle. That gave journalists a moment to take a breath and say, “Okay, is this the right way to do it?” That has harmed the quality of the product that we put out.

For readers who don’t know about Carolina Journal, tell us a little bit about the publication you manage. How does it fit a unique role in the North Carolina media landscape? Why would you tell someone to pay attention to Carolina Journal, particularly if they live here. Why would you pay attention to CJ with so many other media outlets out there ?

King: I think that one of the ways that Carolina Journal is unique is that we are providing fact-based journalism that’s informed by a fundamental belief in free markets and a policy perspective that promotes liberty and the ability for North Carolinians to determine their own destiny.

That’s something that gives a filter to some of what we cover, but we put it on the label. It’s like drinking a protein shake or [deciding] what you feed your children—you read the label. That’s who we are and what we do. We put it on the label that our news coverage is fact biased and informed by free-market and liberty-minded principles.

Many other news outlets don’t put on the label how they filter their news. But there’s no arguing that other news outlets filter it in some way. You must do that. You must select what you’re going to cover and what that headline looks like.

People are smart; they know what they’re consuming when they see it. We tell them what they’re seeing when they’re with us. We’re filling a gap in the market for a product that is needed, and people want to pay attention to it because we are providing information they can’t get elsewhere. Sometimes it’s in the weeds. We’re policy-heavy, but people are smart. They know that these topics impact their businesses and their families.

You’ve covered this a little bit, but a lot of local media outlets have closed or are closing print newspapers. How does this impact state and local government? What are the ways Carolina Journal stands in the gap for North Carolina taxpayers?

King: Any time you lose a news outlet, it’s bad, regardless of whether you think it’s on the left or right. It’s harming local governments because the watchdog is absent. There isn’t somebody covering those city council meetings.

We saw a perfect example of that during COVID when school boards were shutting down schools and sending kids home and there was no accountability. Some of these meetings were happening without the public there or news coverage. People were very focused on Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake County (Raleigh), but what about all the other schools?

It ends up falling to lawmakers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because they’re elected officials, but they had to step into the gap in many cases and make the argument to statewide media like us to cover what’s happening in their local communities. There is a real loss because you have city governments that are not as accountable as they used to be.

So much of our society is fixated on what is happening in Washington. Are there some good ways to get people to think more about local and state government rather than the federal government? How does Carolina Journal contribute to that?

King: The local and state governments impact North Carolinians’ day-to-day lives much more directly than the federal government does. I think that the massive amount of information available on the federal government is the reason we have that focus. There is not much news coverage of what’s happening in state government.

I think it’s partly because of the reduction in news outlets that we were just talking about, but I think it’s also because people don’t realize how those day-to-day decisions happening at the General Assembly or in the governor’s mansion impact their daily life, their child’s education, or their business. Carolina Journal is helping to show them exactly how [these decisions are] impacting their business because often it’s too late when they find out what these decisions have done.

I think it’s safe to say there’s been a lot of media animosity against Republican lawmakers in North Carolina. Some of that ramped up during House Bill 2 to a large degree. There’s been a long narrative that North Carolina’s supposed to be a progressive southern state, and some of that history is true. What is changing? You’re a native North Carolinian, so you might have added insight. It seems like voters are rewarding GOP legislatures despite what seems like a media onslaught against them.

King: First, when you just say HB2, people have visceral reactions. I think the coverage of that bill is a perfect example of what you’re asking. During our coverage, I was shocked by how many reporters and individuals didn’t read the bill and didn’t understand what was happening in Charlotte at that time that brought about the bill.

I don’t think that much has changed. A few things have changed in that we have a very vocal minority determining the narratives, and that vocal minority is the one that determined that North Carolina is a progressive southern state. I’m not positive that it is.

I think Wake and Mecklenburg County are becoming more progressive. New Hanover County (Wilmington) is becoming a little more progressive. What we’re seeing is the majority of voters, albeit sometimes a slim majority, are sending lawmakers that they think best represent their communities to the General Assembly.

The state legislature is a much better example of where North Carolinians are when they get to the polling places than the media narrative saying we are a progressive southern state. Certainly, we’re growing, certainly, we are pro-business, and we are high-tech, and we are all those things, but I do think when it comes to ideology and culture, we’re not as progressive as I think some on the left would like it to be.

North Carolina is receiving a lot of recognition for its pro-business climate. There’s a lot of good happening here. The obvious proof is people pouring into the state, but what do you see as the biggest challenge for North Carolina in this century going forward?

King: I think that one ongoing issue is the level of taxpayer money and incentives that are going into some of these corporate incentive packages, as well as the promised tax rebates if companies grow to the level that they say they will. They’re getting a ton of taxpayer-paid incentives from local and county governments to come here.

Besides Carolina Journal, who do you think is doing a good job of investigative reporting and serving as a watchdog for the taxpayers and residents of the state or this nation?

It’s difficult to say when to stop that because if neighboring states are doing it too, does that mean we aren’t in the game? That we can’t be in the running for some of these big developments? One of the biggest challenges we have is unwinding the financial commitments that we’ve made to bring these companies here, because in the long run are they going to generate what they say they will? Are they producing products that we know will move our state forward? I think in many cases they are. Yet, what’s making North Carolina a fantastic place to live and work and run a business is our high level of education, our climate, our access to the beach and mountains, and our relatively low cost of living—not the incentives. That’s one of the challenges I see moving forward.

King: We’re seeing the growth with these newer nonprofit media groups. I think that they can step into that gap, particularly in news deserts. I like what some of these groups are doing in terms of investigative reporting and digging in deep and talking to folks in the community. A lot of that is taking the place of long-form journalism that is still missing in the news industry.

Consumers of news need to know what’s on the label. Who’s funding them? Where are they getting their money? If they put that lens on what they’re doing—making it more transparent—then they’re doing phenomenal work. I think we’re going to see that part of the news industry grow as the business model—the free-market business model—for news changes with digital news.

Political tribalism is a huge problem with the media today. Most people see the media as left-leaning, but it seems even in the past, there was this curiosity about uncovering the truth. It seems like we’ve lost that, and it’s been swallowed up by political narratives. If you just turn on cable news, it’s narrative after narrative, some of them true, some of them not so much. It’s all very tribal, right?

People are out there just defending their tribe, and there’s not a lot of truth-seeking. What happened? Is that something that we can recover, or are we just stuck in this cycle continually?

King: I believe we can recover. I think the pendulum is swinging back. People are starting to see Twitter for what it is, which is a bunch of bots and bureaucrats that create multiple accounts so that it looks like there’s a crowd behind them. That’s happening. I think journalists were the first to recognize it in many cases.

I also think a lot of the tribalism starts in the universities. A lot of the tribalism energy is being fomented there, and they’re churning out journalists who have preconceived notions about where the truth is and who’s hiding it, rather than having a more natural American philosophy of suspicion. We are a skeptical people by nature in this nation, and it’s a fantastic collective trait that we question authority.

We want to know that journalists are doing fact-checking and questioning all authority, instead of giving somebody a pass because they agree with them politically or admire them as a person. Many of the older journalists who came at this business from a different way recognize many of those deficiencies in the younger journalists.

So much of that tribalism is taking root in the universities, but I do think we’re coming back from it. We’re seeing this growth in watchdog organizations that have a more purist view of what journalism can do for Americans and North Carolinians.

The John Locke Foundation has been around for a long time, at least in the state policy world. Carolina Journal has been around, I think, at least close to the very beginning of that.

King: We’re about 30 years old.

Why do you think it’s important that these state policy groups have a media outlet? Some may not have the resources, but Carolina Journal does, and that’s been beneficial to the state. What are the positives of these media organizations attached or affiliated with a state policy group?

King: I believe it’s transparency, truthfully. We are more transparent than traditional media outlets in many ways because the funding is very clear. It’s evident what organization is supporting us. The goals are clear. The mission and value statements are very clear. If the reader, the consumer of news, knows what they’re reading, and understands the perspective of the organization, it’s much more transparent than, say, a traditional media organization that has an ownership and a vague board, and [readers] don’t really know where they’re coming from and the lens that they’re looking through when they look at the news.

It’s not like the weather. You can’t walk outside and see what it is. People must know for themselves where they’re getting everything that they consume. News is like that, and I think that we’re going to see more of that with the growth of many of these nonprofits. There are far more on the left than on the right, and I think that’s one reason why Carolina Journal has grown so fast.

Authored by:Donna King


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