Amid strong political criticism against media outlets in recent years, the Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee hosted a panel on January 21 with four professional journalists from across Canada. The debate, titled “Journalism in the Age of Fake News,” asked panelists about their thoughts and perspectives on the rapidly evolving role of journalism in the age of misinformation and skepticism.
Speakers included Jesse Brown, the founder of CANADALAND, a crowd-funded news site and podcast that discusses and criticizes practices of large legacy media outlets; Tamara Khandaker, a Toronto-based journalist working at VICE NEWS; Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief at the Toronto Star; and Asmaa Malik, a journalism professor at Ryerson University.
The event was moderated by Marva Wisdom, the director of the Black Experience Project in the GTA, a seven-year research study of the experiences of the Black community living and working in the region.
On the topic of misinformation in Canada, panelists shared conflicting views on fake news in Canada.
“Lies aren’t new and bad reports aren’t new,” said Brown. He added that the reason that ‘fake news’ was the term of the year is because of the growing phenomenon of spreading disinformation, which has sometimes been popularized by US President Donald Trump.
Brown addressed the overall context of ‘fake news’ in Canada, comparing the business of pay-per-click content in developing countries to those in North America. “We just don’t have a population base here for [fake news] to be an effective business to get people to click on just absolutely fraudulent stories,” said Brown.
Panelists also expressed the need for readers to look through different sources of information, noticing a pattern of political affiliations in news sources.
“I think as a journalist, and as citizens, we do have an increasing sort of ‘bubble problem,’ or a treatment to our own self-curated social media feeds, our favourite websites, and we’re just not aware it,” said Dale.
Those with left-leaning views were found to consume legacy news sites such as the Toronto Star and CBC, while those with right-leaning views were found to consume newer media such as Breitbart News and Rebel Media.
Because of this, Dale suggested audience members broaden their sources to gain a better perspective of filtered information on both sides of the political spectrum.
“I urge everyone to refresh their news sources and sometimes I think that means reading sites like Breitbart or Infowars, which are purveyors of often eager, inaccurate information, so you’re aware of what is filtered out there in bubbles that are not your own.”
A number of the panelists shared their views on the need for media literacy in Canada.
“I think fake news as a political cry to rail against good journalism is deeply problematic and it is causing a huge effect,” said Malik.
Malik drew from her experience in academia, commenting on the difference between misinformation and disinformation.
“I think that we’re dealing with a huge media literacy problem and I think that what’s happening is that people are rarely going to direct sources for information, but instead are getting multiple news in multiple ways and that sort of loses the connection to where it actually came from,” said Malik.
Social media was also a consistent topic throughout the debate, centring around the emergence of newer media sites such as Buzzfeed and VICE, and their unique approach to news coverage.
Brown sees these sites as “much more aggressive in pursuing stories” because of their social media presence, which has allowed them to be “sort of understood… [as] the new standard there.”
“I think that the larger phenomena of social media itself [is] probably a greater force than this kind of small but significant ecosystem of news sites,” said Dale.
The panel ended with questions from audience members. One individual asked panelists for a piece of advice they wished they had known early on in their career in journalism.
“Stand up for your story ideas and perspective in a newsroom,” said Khandaker. “I think when you’re starting out you… let people say ‘no,’ and you can be really passive.”
“If something is interesting to me, it’ll probably be interesting to other people.”