“The Future of Journalism in the Age of Fake News”

Excerpts and my observations from the Southam Guest Lecture Panel:

UVic’s Harry Hickman Theatre was spilling over with an audience anxious to hear the November 7, 2017 Harvey Stevenson Southam Guest Lecture panel discussion on “The Future of Journalism in the Age of Fake News.”  Moderated by author and UVic Writing Department Chair David Leach, panel members are all recipients of Southam Guest Lectureships, are all writers/journalists in print or broadcast journalism and each has a unique perspective on the future of their craft.  The panel discussion was fast-paced and no one was at a loss for words and, for me, their message was clear  — fake news is changing journalism and we have a responsibility to better adapt, inform and educate ourselves if we care about the future integrity of journalism and freedom of speech.

Panel members Jody Paterson, Terry Glavin, Jo-Ann Roberts, Tom Hawthorn, Mark Leiren-Young, Vivan Smith and Quinn MacDonald opened with a variety of points/perspectives they hoped to further explore, such as:  “Print media e.g. the daily newpaper won’t survive.”  “Truth is revealed by fact;”  “What is the value of broadcasting to democracy?”  “Sports as it relates to culture and politics.”  “Why is comedy doing a better job of getting to the news than the news?”  “Gender and journalism.”  “Investing in journalism — without a new business model, can journalism survive?”

In the age of “fake news” and because of our relentless quest for information, consumers are exposed daily to the very real danger of believing a single news source without checking its facts against other sources.  We need to search out and learn, for example, who funds the source, which can often identify or determine the extent of its bias and reliability as a legitimate provider of accurate information.  Panel members shared their insights on what this “sole news source” danger means, not only for the reader and for the truth, but equally important, for the state of democracy itself.

For readers and consumers, navigating the shark-infested waters of information-sharing in today’s “information overloaded” news environment presents ongoing challenges of sorting truth from fiction, a troubling and powerful reality in this climate of storytelling.  For instance, many news sources fail to provide the facts or the truth in their overwhelming zeal to grab the reader’s attention and, to ensure that the reader will draw conclusions that align with someone else’s beliefs.  As one panelist warned, “Fake journalism is designed to exhaust democracy…[and] news with an agenda is propaganda.”  He further suggested that there is a heightened tension between “what we want to hear vs. what we need to know.”   If the truth matters, then the need for objective journalism is more critical than ever before.

Panel members encouraged us to “analyze, question and expand your exposure,” because “good journalism is out there.”  One panelist stated that while “it’s damn depressing, we need to know what’s happening, that we face a moral challenge to participate…[because] our brains are patterned for storytelling.”  Further, our “outrage should be directed at solving the problem [of fake news], not demonizing the free press.”  References were also made to the fact that fake news is often just “making mischief…expressing outrage in 140 characters…exaggerating conflict…and creating two sides to an issue when there isn’t one.”

Another recurring theme seemed to resonate with much of the audience — if we value good journalism as a lynch pin of freedom of speech and democracy, we must be prepared to adequately fund it.  One panel member pointed out that in Canada, we fund our public broadcaster, CBC, at just $30 per person per year.  Canada ranks only 16th among the 18 countries that fund a public broadcasting system.  Compare Canada’s funding model to Britain and the BBC, where funding is pegged at well over $100 per person.  As another panelist put it “You gotta’ pay for good journalism.”

This was reinforced by the youngest panel member, a self-described millenial, who shared her frustration with her financial struggle to keep her small magazine alive.  She emphasized that a sound, new and viable journalistic business model is needed if we want to move journalism from just surviving to thriving.  Others agreed and with tongue in cheek, many joked that most journalists have at least two or three other jobs to keep them afloat.

There was also some interesting discussion about differences between younger and older people and how they access news, particularly through social media.  It’s easy for older people to jump to conclusions about younger people but we should be careful in doing so.  Fact check — are younger people really less discriminating or sophisticated about news and information on social media?  Are they more vulnerable to fake news than older consumers?  Apparently not and here’s why we need to check our facts before forming opinions — the youngest panelist made a surprising observation about baby boomers, observing  that this older demographic “needs to be reined in” on their use of social media, especially Facebook.   Obviously, age does not necessarily bring wisdom when it comes to how we use social media and exercise our ability to fact check sources before posting.

So how can we defend ourselves from the onslaught of fake news?  Panelists suggested that local news sources that reflect and meet community values and needs have a significant role to play.  So do partnerships with academic institutions, developing mentorships and “incubating local and global news” that connects to the stories we write, all effective tools that may help sustain a well informed readership that serves quality, professional “public interest journalism.”

This was a thought-provoking evening that also raised some questions for me.  In this madding world of media hype, is there enough time taken for quiet reflection or critical thought when processing information?  Has instant access to online social media shifted social norms and behaviours, created a culture of narcissism and egocentricity and changed how we relate to one another?  On some level, are interpersonal skills, like print media, waning?

Some will argue that we are better connected to the world and to each other, like never before.  That this level of connectivity can only enhance our awareness of each other and the world around us. But these beliefs remain uncertain for me, particularly in this age of fake news.  What I did conclude from listening to this talented panel is that it is incumbent on all of us to check and double check our sources, support good journalism and, if we practice and publish our own form of storytelling, that we do no harm.

My final conclusion based on being there?  Simply a great evening with a great panel.