Incredibly, I've never attended an Online News Association (ONA) conference, even though I've spent decades as a working journalist or journalism professor (been to dozens of other conferences, though). This year I was accepted into a special year-long ONA program for female news executives, culminating last week with an in-person gathering of the roughly 34 execs at the organization's annual conference in Philadelphia.
Why just women? Like most professions, we're historically underrepresented in executive and C-suite leadership. And generally speaking, women leaders tend to manage differently from men, with much more emphasis on team work/collaboration and bottom-up leadership.
To ONA's credit, this was a delightfully diverse group — along race/ethnicity, geography, religion, age, language, online vs. traditional newsrooms, for-profit vs. non-profit, etc. My initial goal was simply to have a cohort of execs I could turn to for help with the simplest of things, such as sharing blank performance-evaluation forms, newsroom social media policies and the like. What I ended up with was more — an almost spiritual commitment to forging ahead in difficult times, both financially for the news industry and emotionally (the endless threats, trolling and depressing nature of the news exact a heavy toll).
Take-aways from the broader conference beyond the female exec gathering?
- The 2024 presidential election will likely be worse for disinformation/misinformation than the 2022 mid-terms and 2020 election. U.S. democracy is under threat, and we're living in historically important times in that regard. Artificial intelligence and ChatGPT are taking center stage both in potentially helping journalists stomp out misinformation but also in misleading the public. Bad actors are already pouncing. As a private citizen (such as a whistleblower) or a journalist/fact-checker, don't be tempted to use ChatGPT to write a form letter requesting public records under the Federal of Information Act (FOIA), according to several legal experts at the conference. Experiments with such letters so far have turned up embarrassing errors and problems.
- Care about truth and accuracy? Act like a troll by firehosing friends, family and colleagues with truthful information, as opposed to lies. Counter falsehoods by sharing and re-sharing accurate content from services such as Snopes and other reputable publications. And don't be afraid to share the same good info over and over and over again — you can't assume your audience saw it the first (or second or third) time. Readers are busy.
- If you're worried about social platforms, such as Twitter or Facebook, exploiting your private information for commercial (or electoral) gain, take steps to fix that. Experts from PEN America crafted incredibly handy guidelines on exactly how to protect yourself here and here.
- Finally ... breathe. We're in for more tougher times in terms of democracy. When the news feels overwhelming, try putting your thumbs in your ears and hum in a monotone for 10-30 seconds. I'm serious. Reset your mind this way throughout the day as many times as you need. And don't give up on the truth.