In era of fake news and untruths, journalism matters
Appetite for high-quality journalism has never been stronger or more important to democracy, yet paradoxically, it has never been less valued.
By BRYAN ALARY
As if things weren’t bleak enough for journalism, between the unrelenting hemorrhaging of ad revenues, regular layoffs, closures of historic titles and the public’s refusal to pay for news, it has recently come under attack on a new front.
The rise of the post-truth era has spawned accusations of fake news and broadsides against the fourth estate—recently denounced as “the enemy of the American people” by U.S. President Donald Trump.
If anything, Trump’s rise is one more kick in the mouth of an industry already feeling around for its teeth. So it’s all the more curious to hear some journalists greet recent developments with a special breed of optimism.
“What gives me some hope is actually that we’ve learned what happens when we go down the deep, dark black hole of fake news, misinformation, lack of information. His skin is orange and he has a really strange hairdo,” said Jason Markusoff, a journalist with Maclean’s magazine.
Markusoff made the comment as part of an expert panel of Alberta-based journalists—Mark Iype and Paula Simons (Edmonton Journal), Marion Warnica (CBC), Josh Greschner (The Gateway) and former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell—who explored the future of journalism in the post-truth era.
Healthy press, healthy democracy
Markusoff said it’s more important than ever for the news-consuming public to seek out credible journalism from a variety of trusted sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post and the not-for-profit ProPublica—all of which have seen a rise in readership since the U.S. election.
“I hope that the blowback from Trump will bring people to sources they can trust and understand that it’s important to sustain those sources they can trust.”
Campbell, founding principal of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, which hosted the event, said two things make citizenship possible: public education, which allows people to understand and participate in issues, and a free press. Even when she endured slings and arrows from journalists during her political career, she said, she’s always valued a free press.
“It is really about democracy, it is about the survival. For many of us, this is the first time in my adult life I’ve felt worried about democracy. I’ve felt worried about the future of democratic institutions.”
The rise of fake news
Iype, editor-in-chief of the Journal and Edmonton Sun, said criticisms of the media and accusations of “fake news” reflect more a change in how news is produced than any conspiracy on the part of journalists. The democratization of news through digital and social channels means anybody can report, he said. That’s created so much information, journalists can’t keep up and parse through what’s verifiable and true and what isn’t, especially when decisions are made often in the midst of chaos.
“We’re not plotting to tear down the walls, to change the world by giving you false information, but that is the opinion that is out there. That is the battle we are facing.”
Campbell, as other panellists noted, said there’s always been fake or libellous news but there was a definite escalation during the U.S. election.
“Spurious websites—run by two kids in Macedonia to basically change the outcome of the American election” and those used by countries like Russia masquerade as the truth, which people glom onto because it confirms their predispositions.
“The size of it, the scale of it and what it puts at risk now, in terms of the survival of democratic institutions, is really important,” she said.
Is journalism actually dying?
The panel discussed—and often commiserated—at length on the state of the news industry in Canada. Simons said ad revenues at the Journal have fallen off 70 per cent “because nobody under 40 is reading the print product.” When coupled with the fact that consumers of news aren’t willing to pay for it, it’s translated into deep cuts to newsrooms.
“The reality of it is, when I started at the Journal, there were 40—four-zero—reporters in the city room. And now there are 12,” Simons said.
On the changing media landscape and failed experiments with Internet stories, paywalls and tablet editions, Iype conceded journalism failed to react quickly enough and “made our bed, basically.”
Now that consumers are used to free news, Greschner said there is no way that millennials are going to pay.
Warnica questioned whether media organizations should blame readers for not paying or instead focus on other solutions like finding a better funding model or rethink how news is gathered and disseminated. ProPublica, for example, receives $15 million a year in donations as a registered charity and has won three Pulitzer prizes.
“There are media organizations that are asking these questions, and I wonder … if that’s more where we need to be thinking, what we need to be asking as we go ahead and solve this complex problem.”
One issue on which the panel agreed is that the public’s appetite for news has never been stronger. Simons noted that the Journal website had one million visitors during the Fort McMurray wildfires and that some of her columns can receive up to 200,000 views.
As Trump has shown in the United States, the importance of good journalism has never been more important, Iype said. Locally, the work of colleagues such as Simons, whose column on the death of Serenity, a young girl who died in care, or Journal health reporter Keith Gerein, who spent two and a half years investigating threats of violence against Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, have shone light on important issues. And readers want those stories, he said.
“People read that story start to finish. People took something from it, they learned something from it. Whether that changes something—I hope it does—but quality is king.”