In the infancy of my career in journalism – a field facing declining employment among people like me – I’ve battled seeds of doubt sown by 2016 politics and realized the value of spirited, local news.
State Department of Labor statistics for Connecticut State Universities graduates illustrate a growing apprehension among young reporters. In the third quarter of their employment after graduation, over 74 percent of 2016-2017 journalism graduates were employed. But the 2019-2020 class felt an 18 percent drop in employment.
For journalism majors at Central Connecticut State University, class sizes were consistently small, and we all shared a similar fear stemming from the wave of fake news claims in our adolescence – were we pursuing careers in a dwindling, contentious industry?
I registered for my first high school journalism class one month after Donald Trump was elected president. Adults in my life fiercely debated the merits of news media at holiday dinners as I sighed, wondering whether they would accept my newfound interest. But four months into my role at the CT Examiner, I’ve realized that passionate discourse is the driver behind not only my chosen career path, but behind all notable, local news stories.
A couple of weeks into my new position, I dove into a longstanding battle between the environmental concerns and economic benefits of expanding Tweed New Haven Airport. I discussed the economic benefits with the New Haven mayor and Tweed’s executive director one day, and met with residents of East Haven – an environmental justice community – the next.
Impassioned by a need to protect their community, residents filled local conference rooms to brainstorm protests, petitioned federal agencies and attended airport authority meetings in droves. While national news outlets have yet to pick up the story like they’d hoped, local politicians continue to back residents, with East Haven Mayor Joe Carfora, State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and State Rep. Alphonse Paolillo, D-New Haven, calling for an Environmental Impact Statement for airport impacts on wetlands, noise levels, vehicular traffic, air quality and more.
A recurring, national debate – the place of gender and sexuality in public schools – also cemented itself in Fairfield County, dominating board of education meetings and encouraging parent participation. The fight between an administrative need for tolerance in schools and parental concerns made its way through the county in various forms. Whether it was by way of a district-approved book featuring drag queens in Darien or sexuality and gender orientation questions in a student survey in Fairfield, the issue was undoubtedly fueled by passionate residents.
Claims of intolerance from some parents and a need for parental control from others fanned the flames of a national culture war. In the case of Darien, a clip of a concerned parent at a board meeting garnered almost 500,000 views on Twitter and prompted responses from Connecticut politicians in the comment section. In Fairfield, some attendees stayed seated until the end of a near 5-hour board of education meeting to provide comments on a school survey.
Trumbull residents similarly picked sides in a hyper-local debate over a senior center. After a near 8-year search following claims of a failing boiler, broken air conditioners and flooding at the current building from senior citizens, the town focused on a new potential property this year. But nearby neighbors of the Hardy Lane site banded together and acquired almost 300 signatures in an online petition, claiming the property was originally purchased for conservation as the nearby Pequonnock River was suffering from environmental impacts.
Attending a Trumbull meeting in October, I watched as neighbors and seniors alike stepped to the microphone to plead their case. While most attendees would’ve preferred to spend their Wednesday evening at home with their families, they showed up to the town library regardless.
For those outside of a given municipality, it’s easy to dismiss localized issues and write off resident passion as an overreaction. But whether an issue is of local, state, national or global concern, all forms of public participation demonstrate the human need to protect ourselves and our values. Hardy Lane neighbors are driven by a desire to protect their neighborhood. Darien and Fairfield parents want control over their children’s education. East Haven residents want to preserve their environment and improve local conditions.
By detaching myself from my own pride for a moment, it’s clear that those who participated in the 2016 fake news narrative did so out of self-preservation, led by their own fears and values – not to discourage young journalists. As a 23-year-old reporter, I’ve pushed away my own doubts and joined an industry desperate for people like me. I encourage those coming after me to do the same, and continue to shine a light on local values.