Do You Know Your ‘Enemy?’ Local News Becomes Collateral Damage in Polarized Time
Shelby Rose stands poised in front of the Little Rock Police Department on a brisk autumn day. Her career at KATV-Channel 7 as a general assignment reporter is still relatively young, but her sharp, skillful and scrupulous style has already established the journalist as a formidable presence in Central Arkansas. She is honest, fair, principled — priceless attributes in this industry.
She’s here to report on the alarming rates of gun violence in the Capital City, a crime beat that the Texas native has become more than familiar with during her time in the state, as well as the chilling and swirling winds that can pick up on fall days such as this. As she prepares to film her prerecorded reporting segment for the nightly news, the gusts are not bashful. Rose calmly uses her fingers as an impromptu brush, trying to tame her hair and remain a professional presence. Suddenly, a crass heckle pierces through the air.
“You look stupid,” a woman out of frame jeers.
“I don’t think I look stupid at all,” Rose retorts behind a smile.
“Oh, I know you do,” the woman doubles down. “You play with your hair more than you do anything.”
“Thank you,” Rose responds with a patience and restraint that onlookers might envy.
“You’re welcome,” scoffs the woman. “Why don’t you play with the rest of your dress? Your belly is sticking out.”
The insults begin to fly as rapidly as the breeze. “Hold your tummy in,” “You need to wear a girdle to keep your belly in,” “No amount of makeup will make you look beautiful.”
Juxtaposed against the wind and the taunts, Rose’s fortitude is unchanged. “I love getting harassed when I’m trying to do my job,” she says under her breath, without losing her charming smile.
Further reporting by Rose would find that this woman was not affiliated with the department, but was known to be a frequent loiterer of the area. Still, it happened. And even more unfortunately, instances such as these are not rare.
“Because the public perception of the media is just so negative and so terrible, I’ve come to learn not to allow people like that to get to me, and to just ignore them because it’s not worth it,” Rose tells AY About You.
Anyone with just half a heart would be disconcerted by language like this, that a young woman just four years out of school has already become numb to impudence as if it were a salutation. But Rose reports the same headline as most of her colleagues in the industry: We’re often the enemy. And it’s gotten worse.
Gallup, an analytics and advisory company, has tracked via polling how the general public regards the mass media — newspapers, TV and radio — for decades. In 1976, the numbers peaked at a record 72 percent of Americans feeling a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. By 20 years ago, it had trickled down to meager shades in the 50 percent range. But in 2016, the bottom dropped out; only 32 percent reported a positive level of trust. It has risen merely marginally to now, with Gallup reporting a 40 percent of trust finding in September.
Carlton “Sonny” Rhodes has more than 40 years of experience in the journalism industry, most of it on the print side of things for the likes of the Log Cabin Democrat, Pine Bluff Commercial and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But these days, the venerable Rhodes devotes his time to the next generation of budding journos as an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Since very nearly day one, he’s waded through these changing tides and felt the gale fester around him.
“In my 40-plus years as a journalist, public trust of the media has been an ongoing concern,” he says. “I was once confronted by a person who said I had been unfair in a story, even though I had done my absolute best to present the story fully and fairly. I was troubled by the person’s comments and brought up the subject with my editor, who told me that, in essence, whether a story is considered fair ‘just depends on whose ox is being gored.’ In other words, ‘fairness’ can be subjective to some readers.”
Regarding the historic low bar of 2016, one will likely not require a reminder that this was an election year, one of the most polarizing in modern history. It was the year that the phrase “fake news” picked up the steam of an off-the-rails train. Four years later, not much has changed as far as that vitriol is concerned. At that, Rhodes’ words become quite clear.
“The situation has not been helped by a president who labels the media as the ‘enemy of the people,’” he says. “People who are disgruntled with the media no longer are content to call an editor and complain or cancel their subscription; they attack you on social media and, as can be seen on television, some reporters have to be protected by bodyguards while trying to do their jobs.”
Rose knows what that’s like. She’s waist-deep in these turbulent waters, though sometimes it might feel deeper than that. She finds no better example to explain what it’s like than comparing two similar moments divided by time.
In 2016, she was amid her first official gig after graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Working as a reporter for KXMB, the CBS affiliate in Bismarck, N.D., she found herself right in the middle of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Thousands of people had congregated to, as she puts it, “middle of nowhere, North Dakota,” opposing the pipeline’s installation which many argued would pose a threat to the region’s water supply and threaten historic sites and ancient burial grounds of the surrounding Native American communities, including Standing Rock, which occupied a reservation nearby.
“What was wild is that, if we’re comparing it to the [George Floyd] Little Rock protests per se, situationally, the [pipeline] protests were way more dangerous than what happened here in Little Rock,” she says. “No. 1, this happened for six months. No. 2, there were a lot more people, and there were just a lot more crazy things happening, like cars being lit on fire, people trying to detonate homemade bombs and blowing their arms off, people pulling out automatic rifles on each other, just absolute crazy stuff. But the difference between then and now is that then I was a fly on the wall. People knew who I was. People knew that I was there, but no one bothered me. In six months of me covering [those] protests, I think I got yelled at three times.
“But comparative to now, whenever I went to the first night of the protests here in Little Rock, within five minutes I was surrounded — having water bottles thrown at me, screamed in my face, calling me all different kinds of obscenity. It was horrible … I was automatically the enemy for essentially doing nothing.”
On live television, Rose was assaulted by one of the protestors. It all became a little ironic as time passed, for just as she was immediately treated as a foe by some in attendance who were fueled by heightened emotion, she would eventually become a kindred spirit — on the ground reporting on the night’s events, Rose was tear-gassed by police, also on television, simultaneously to the protestors.
Her reporting in Little Rock, covering an event that on the surface was not so dissimilar to the one four years prior, was so dangerous that at one point Chris May, a KATV anchor, was visibly unsettled when the live feed returned to him, cut off after Rose fled a stampede of oncoming protestors.
But therein lies a perplexing curiosity. The public’s means for distrust of media did not begin in 2016, but it was accelerated and amplified by politics, for the most part. That was near-objectively the case early on, but the countrywide protests following the murder of George Floyd were not populated by the right.
“It [essentially] was just a specific group of people who were carrying out that narrative,” Rose says. “But as time has gone on, it has been adopted by everyone. It has become an incredibly common term that everyone is just now using freely.
“If you go back to the root of where this ‘fake news’ started, it was talking about national news sources like CNN, MSNBC — the ones who can have a biased view on stories, and the ones that do tend to lean left or right, depending on the network. But that rhetoric has now been carried to local news where people just lump us all as ‘one in the same.’”
Over time, this snowball became practically unstoppable, an avalanche of hostility that started sweeping up local media into this circumstantial and cognitive dissonance filled dustbin.
“That’s, I think, the frustrating part for a lot of journalists, especially local news journalists,” Rose says. “Because we work our tails off, day in and day out, to be unbiased and fair and balanced in our reporting. Yet, we still get screamed ‘fake news’ at, and we still get accused of leaning a certain way, depending on the story.
“I’ve been called leftist; I’ve been called the alt-right,” she goes on to say, furthering the sentiments put forth by Rhodes’ ox analogy.
From the next wave of up-and-comers of the field, Rhodes has noticed some of the same frustration. Recently, a particular student said this to the professor: “People seem to think journalists have some evil alternative agenda, and that I want to embarrass them through their interview, or that I will plainly make up quotes for them.”
Meanwhile, in actuality and with few better examples than Rose, the media is made up of simply that — people. Those who have taken on a difficult, strenuous, and at times dangerous endeavor to keep the general public informed. Whether that is on the newest pop-up chicken shack in the metro or the latest COVID-19 data to help keep your family safe, they’ll be there to tell you about it. They’re humans, so mistakes are possible; but they have lives, families, bills to pay — just like anyone else. And this is their job, which is by design to inform you about the world around you.
A remedy for this disheartening reality is a million-dollar question. One that both Rhodes and Rose have an understandably difficult time answering, same as their colleagues across the state and country.
“Most folks have not had the advantage of being in a journalism classroom and learning about the things that responsible journalists hold dear,” Rhodes says. “Things like the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, the four main principles of which are: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent. I wish there was some way we could get that word out better. On the other hand, one has to question whether this is something the public truly wants to know about.”
What makes Rose human (in addition to simple biology) is her love for people. She describes herself as a social person who, like other extroverts, has been challenged by this pandemic-plagued year defined by societal isolation. She’s thoroughly enjoyed living in the Natural State ever since she joined the KATV news team in 2018 for its abundant opportunities to spend time in nature, like hiking and kayaking.
“If anyone sees me out and about, keep your social distance, but come say, ‘Hi,’” she jokes. “I love meeting people. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
“I’m a Little Rock resident. I’m a part of this community. I am just like every other person on the street here, yet I get treated as some foreign person who has been sent in to just disrupt the community … I consider myself just like everyone else here in Little Rock, but there are people who think of me as the devil. And it sucks.”