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Journalists Talk Fake News, the First Amendment, and Public Trust

When Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler sent out a memo to his staff outlining how the global news organization should cover newly elected president Donald Trump, he just wanted to reinforce the organization’s values and responsibilities.

He found it interesting that, once the memo became public, 650,000 people read it online. He found it really interesting that a leader of a major news organization soon contacted him to ask him why he had issued two contradictory memos.

The caller had read multiple reports on the memo, and at least one of them was so biased that the news leader didn’t realize they were written about the same document.

“Someone had twisted it to their personal end,” Adler said.

The Reuters president was telling the story as part of a panel of international, national, and local journalists gathered at the Emerson/Paramount Center Wednesday, March 29, for “Fake News and Alternative Facts: The Role of Universities, Journalism, and Political Communication in Preserving Democracy.”

“America is vulnerable to fake news and alternative facts because we live in a world where words mean little and facts, less,” President Lee Pelton said in welcoming remarks.

Other panelists included Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s On Point; Katie Kingsbury, director of digital content for the Boston Globe; and Peter Casey, director of news and programming for CBS Radio/WBZ Boston. Janet Wu, former 7NBC anchor/reporter and Emerson affiliated faculty member, moderated.

Watch “Fake News and Alternative Facts”

Kingsbury said journalists know what their job is, and it hasn’t changed since Trump was elected: “We’re going to be tough on this president, we’re going to be fair to this president, and we’re going to be unrelenting [in asking questions].

“At the same time…the media is not the enemy of the president. We are opposed to misinformation and that is what we’re combatting,” she said.

She said media outlets need to make sure they’re always fair and accurate, and that they’re digging deep to tell stories that reflect the lives and concerns of a broad spectrum of Americans, but that’s not always enough.

“We tried to tell those stories [at the Globe], Kingsbury said. “I think the bigger question is why didn’t we reach them?”

Ashbrook, when asked about the impact of evening political comedy shows on political discourse, said they were groundbreaking a decade or so ago, but that social media has surpassed them in impact and influence, for good and ill.

“I’m worried about fake news put into the bloodstream of social media delivery,” he said. “It could leave our country sitting askew to reality and therefore vulnerable and in trouble.”

He and Adler briefly debated the effect of fake news and false information on the outcome of the election and on the long-term health of the democracy.

“[C]learly, we have politicians who have identified the potential of pushing false narratives to successfully propel them into power, and this is a big deal,” Ashbrook said. “And now some are turning around to try to attack those who try to bring an objective view.”

But Adler said he wasn’t sure the “false narratives” are what prompted people to vote for Trump, and that the president’s policies and their effect on voters’ lives will be what ultimately matters.

“Part of the sorting process is to see what happens, and when people see the facts on the ground, either positive toward what the president says he’s going to do or negative, then their perception changes based on the facts,” Adler said.

There’s a reason false narratives resonated and took hold with voters, Kingsbury said, and that’s because people had “genuine needs and desires” that weren’t being met. The country needs to ask itself what has to happen in order for those people to feel like their concerns are being addressed, she said.

Casey put some of the onus of separating fact from falsehoods on audiences and readers, suggesting they vet stories and sources of information as thoroughly as they would a new restaurant they want to try.

“Do your own little opposition research and look at things from both…perspectives,” Casey advised.

He said the way to combat the proliferation of false information is to “double down” and do their jobs better.

“[Putting] more critical thought into what we do,” Casey said. “Making sure we are ‘fair and balanced,’ not as a marketing term, but in reality.”

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