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Friday, November 15, 2019
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Event to Tackle Role of Journalism, Communication in Preserving Democracy

Clockwise, from top left: Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler; Boston Globe Director of Digital Content Katie Kingsbury; Peter Casey, director of news and programming at CBS Radio/WBZ Boston; and Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR's “On Point”.  

Students in Emerson’s journalism classes are having the same debates that reporters and editors in newsrooms around the country are having.

They’re trying to figure out what to do with “various tweets from various individuals,” and how to deal with a hostile press secretary and administration, said Journalism Chair Paul Niwa. They’re trying to understand how to function as journalists when the old model—objectivity as currency and contract—no longer exists.

“We’re having a vibrant discussion, and I think that’s the best way of making sense of it and organizing ourselves,” said Niwa.

That discussion will be opened up to the Emerson community and the public on Wednesday, March 29,  at 7:00 pm, when the School of Communication hosts “Fake News and Alternative Facts: The Role of Universities, Journalism, and Political Communication in Preserving Democracy,” at the Emerson/Paramount Center.

The panel will include distinguished journalists from a wide range of backgrounds: Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s On Point; Steve Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters; Katie Kingsbury, director of digital content for the Boston Globe; and Peter Casey, director of news and programming at CBS Radio/WBZ Boston. Janet Wu, former 7NBC anchor/reporter and an Emerson affiliated faculty member, will moderate; President Lee Pelton will introduce the panel.

Niwa said all the panelists share a “deep respect” for the role of citizens in a democracy, and the discussion will focus on how the industry can best inform the public.

“We all have a stake in this. This is our media, not the journalists’ media,” Niwa said. “There’s a reason journalism is the only protected profession in the Constitution. It’s… because journalism helps citizens make decisions.”

The history of journalism is one of transitions, Niwa said. The pamphlet press succumbed to the penny press, which took a beating when broadcast came into play.

“What’s happening right now, in my opinion, is we’re going through a media transition, and in every media transition, historically, citizens reconfigure their diet of sources of information, and very few of the existing media are able to make the transition to whatever comes next,” he said.

At one time, people read several different newspapers a day, because there were so many competing sources of information, Niwa said. Over the last century, traditional news sources have consolidated to the point where most cities have one major daily and a handful of broadcast stations.

As a result of their dwindling numbers, newspapers—which, historically, had never been terribly concerned with objectivity—took on the role of “stewards of conversations” and switched to less biased coverage to appeal to a broader base of readers, Niwa said.

But in today’s fragmented media landscape, numerous and often very biased sources of information have proliferated, Niwa said, so citizens need to go back to reading multiple sources and learning how to separate “alternative facts” from real facts.

“We haven’t been in the habit of looking at multiple sources, and now it’s a necessity,” Niwa said. “If we believe in the model of democracy, we should have faith that if we have a vigorous forum of ideas, the best ideas will stand up to debate and emerge.”

Dr. Raul Reis, dean of Emerson’s School of Communication, said he wants the School to play a major role in the national discussion around the value of facts and truth, and what responsible journalism means to a healthy democracy.

“I think, as a school, we cannot stay silent as we prepare a new generation of communicators,” Reis said. “They have to be prepared with the values and the ethics that we hold dear… We can’t throw away 200 years of excellence in journalism and communication because someone has a different point of view of what the facts are.”

To that end, the School of Communication is offering an afternoon of panels and a master class before the “Fake News and Alternative Facts” keynote panel. All sessions are open to the public.

From 2:00-3:30 pm in the Bright Family Screening Room, Associate Professor Paul Mihailidis will moderate “Pedagogies of Persistence: Civic Media, Activism, and Critical Engagement in a Time of Distrust.” Panelists Moses Shumow of Florida International University and Chris Harris of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, will explore “the phenomenon of persistence,” defined as long-term activism that resists systemic inequality, and ways to turn “knowledge into action.”

From 4:00-5:30 pm on the Robert J. Orchard Stage, Communication Studies Chair Greg Payne will moderate “Clear and Present Danger: Words, Facts, Reason, Truth. Do They Still Matter?” Guests Linda Peek Schacht of Lipscomb University, a communications advisor in the public and private sector; and Judith Trent of the University of Cincinnati, a political communication analyst and frequent media commentator, will analyze past and current presidential communications and discuss the need for news literacy.

Also from 4:00-5:30 pm, in the Bright Family Screening Room, Reuters’ Steven Adler will lead a master class for students on uncovering trustworthy information in an era of alternative facts.

For more information about the events, visit the Fake News and Alternative Facts website. All events are free and open to the public, but registration is requested for the keynote panel at eventbrite. The event also will be livestreamed at www.emerson.edu/live