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Journalists discuss threat to democracy, recommend ‘slow news’

Three leading journalists spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at The Bounty restaurant in Salida, addressing “fake news” and the role of the press in keeping citizens informed, during a Chaffee County League of Women Voters event on Feb. 15.

Speakers included:

• Andrew Calabrese, professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, focusing on the role of media in supporting civil society and social justice.

• Elizabeth Skewes, chair of the Journalism Department at the University of Colorado, whose specialty is media sociology, news practices and the role of media in electoral policy.

• Tom Linthicum, journalism professor at the University of Maryland, former city editor of the Baltimore Sun and executive editor of the Daily Record, Baltimore’s business and legal newspaper.

All three journalists mentioned childhood memories of watching television news broadcasts with parents and siblings, acknowledging that, regardless of the network (CBS, NBC or ABC), news programs reported facts.

Based on this common set of news, said Skewes, who joined via video conference, people had “a shared understanding of basic issues.”

But in today’s world, inundated with cable channels, talk radio programs, blogs, social media and websites, we see “increasing disagreement as to what the facts are,” she said. “There’s lots of cable news, but it’s really opinion,” which blurs the distinction between opinion and fact and “puts opinion on equal footing with fact.”

The panelists cited recent studies and statistics to illustrate the challenges presented by the onslaught of digital media and the rapid proliferation of unfiltered information.

“Seventy-two percent of Americans … in 2017 felt that the news covers one side of an issue. … Eighty-seven percent of Republicans feel that way; 53 percent of Democrats feel that way.

“And the biggest divide ever measured is 89 percent of Democrats feel that the news (media) are doing a good thing by holding political leaders accountable, compared to “42 percent of Republicans,” Calabrese said. He noted the survey was conducted by “a very reputable polling organization, the Pew polling organization.”

Calabrese continued, “There’s a lot of research that demonstrates that the political right – and I’m not here to get you to change your political views; I think you should confront your political views and think about them in light of what I’m presenting – a group at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center have made a strong claim that the right produces more fake news than the left in this country.”

Skewes said, “If you go back to the post-Watergate era … you have roughly 70 percent of the population that said they had a lot of trust in the media, according to Gallup polls that were taken at the time. … Today we’re down to 32 percent of the population that says that they actually have trust in what the media tells them. … That means that 68 percent don’t.”

Skewes cited a recent study by Gallup showing 51 percent of Democrats trust the media compared to 14 percent of Republicans. “Republicans have very little trust in the press.”

Skewes also referenced a recent Knight study that shows, “Among people who identify as being a Republican, 40 percent of them said that, if a story is accurate – it’s got facts … that they believe are actually facts in it – but if that story says something negative about a politician that they like, they categorize it as fake news. … That’s a problem in how we understand information.”

Given this state of affairs, Skewes said she believes one of the jobs of journalism is to be “a voice for saying, ‘We have vetted this information, we have looked at it carefully, and we’re going to tell you what is true to the best of our ability.’”

In Great Britain, Skewes said, there is a “Slow Journalism movement to say, you know, instead of needing information in the nanosecond or two after it happens, let’s slow it down, let’s make sure we get it right. …

“We … need to be willing to be patient with news to get quality news. News does have obligations to us. … Journalism has an obligation first and foremost to truth. We’re in an era where accuracy and speed are in competition, and so we don’t get as much verification as we should.”

Additionally, Skewes emphasized the need for independence. “Good journalism needs to be independent from the people that it covers … to serve as an independent monitor of anybody in a position of power. … It needs to challenge those people, and it needs to question those people because the press, at its finest, is a watchdog in service of the public, of us, the citizens.”

Illustrating the importance of journalism’s role, Skewes noted, “We have an administration that has traded in something they have called ‘alternative facts.’ As a former journalist, and I spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter and magazine writer and all of that, the whole idea of alternative facts boggles my mind, but we’re in a world where that exists.”

In addition to practicing patience, the three journalists recommended that citizens be willing to venture outside their comfort zones.

“We have to be willing to talk across the aisle” and have civil conversations to try and understand the other side, said Skewes. “I will intentionally read stuff that might make me angry so that I get a better understanding. … Maybe I have to modify my position a little bit, but I need to be willing to do that. …

“We’ve got a lot more in common than we have differences, and when we think about bias, we need to recognize our own bias. We need to be self-aware and less judgmental. … Be kind to one another. Be open to alternative points of view.”

Calabrese recommended tools for combating fake news in four categories:

• For promoting media literacy, he recommended organizations like the National Association for Media Literacy Education and Media Education Foundation.

• For fact checking, he recommended and, operated by the University of Pennsylvania.

• Another tool to combate fake news is protest, said Calabrese, citing the March for Science as a response to political propaganda taking precedence over scientific knowledge.

• His final tool, laughter, is exemplified by media personalities like Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee of “Full Frontal.”