Alternative News Panel Discussion, Image

Ashley Rowe, a 2011 Western University media, theory and production graduate, asks panelists a question during the Accountability and Transparency in News Media in an Era of “Alternative Facts”' talk in the FIMS and Nursing Building. Photographed on Oct. 21, 2017. 

As technology integrates itself into society, some solutions lead to futher problems. One recent danger is fake news, a phenomenon that has been misinforming readers more and more since the birth of the internet.

Coordinating with the Homecoming date, Saturday morning the Faculty of Information and Media Studies hosted a talk "Accountability and Transparency in News Media in an Era of 'Alternative Facts'." The talk brought together media experts and journalists to discuss the topic of fake news.

The panel consisted of The Canadian Press vice-president digital, Andrew Lundy; The Globe and Mail public editor, Sylvia Stead; TVO field reporter, Mary Baxter; Western FIMS professor, Victoria Rubin; and CBC London Morning show host, Rebecca Zandbergen. The panel was moderated by Western University journalism professor and The Hamilton Spectator deputy editor Paul Benedetti.

The speakers made it clear that fake news is not just a contemporary buzzword but a serious and growing threat to journalistic integrity. Central to the threat of fake news is technology.

“This isn't new, but we live in a new kind of world,” observed Benedetti. 

A major facet of the danger, the panellists warned, is a need for speed. Journalists scramble to be the first to break a story, and sometimes, fact-checking is brushed under the rug in an effort to break the story before the competition.

Lundy used the example of the viral hoax of Gordon Lightfoot's supposed death in 2010 in which a single tweet convinced major news agencies of the musician's death.

“Once one legitimate journalist retweeted it, it became confirmed, even though that journalist didn't do one inch of work to confirm it,” said Lundy.

Apart from mere negligence, fake news has been seized as a means of attack, most notably from U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Trump weaponized fake news,” said Benedetti, referring to an occasion at a press conference when the president called out CNN reporter Jim Acosta as being “fake news”.

“He turned it into a political bludgeon,” Benedetti noted.

Despite the president's politically charged employment of the term, much of the fake news we encounter is actually apolitical. 

“A lot of it isn't even ideological: people can make a lot of money creating fake news,” said Lundy.

The panellists discussed how a lot of the false news we see on our Facebook feeds is economically motivated, meant more to collect ad revenue than sway political opinion.

The talk also touched on solutions for minimizing the influence of fake news.

Stead said the Globe and Mail tries to keep their sponsored articles aesthetically distinct from their genuine articles. Moreover, the Globe and Mail has added a “report the error” link on their articles in an effort to catch false information. 

Zandbergen approached the question from another angle saying that journalists need to be more conscious of their biases and cover more than what they are interested in.

Nevertheless, the panellists all agreed the dangers of fake news could be avoided if we took the time to reflect on the content we consume. 

“Some people call it critical literacy. Think more, share less,” said Rubin.

The morning ended with the sobering awareness that it is up to the individual to be critical of the news they consume. The critical reader cannot allow their ideological background to sway what they wish to be facts, and must not believe everything they read to be true.

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