UVic panel debates how to battle fake news

Harvey Southam panel features six fine journalists

“I look out here, and there must be 600, 700 000 people — at least!” joked David Leach, chair of the UVic writing department, to the crowd gathered on Nov. 7 for the 10th Harvey Southam panel. “If you hear anything different tomorrow, [it’s] fake news.”

Although the crowd was considerably smaller than Leach claimed, UVic’s Hickman auditorium still held a packed house of over 200 people, including many local journalistic heavyweights, for a discussion titled “The Future of Journalism in the Age of Fake News.”

The Harvey Stevenson Southam Guest Lectureship program was made possible by a bequest from the Southam family, a philanthropic family heavily involved in the Canadian news industry. Named for one of the family’s sons, a Vancouver-based journalist who died in 1991, this program has brought a new mid-to-late career journalist-in-residence to UVic every year since 2008. While at the university, the journalist-in-residence teaches a course and holds a lecture based on their journalistic specialty.

Six former lecturers from this program were invited back as panellists to discuss the concept of fake news: JoAnn Roberts, previously the host of CBC’s All Points West; Terry Glavin, columnist for the Ottawa Citizen; Jody Paterson, former Times Colonist columnist; Tom Hawthorn, freelance writer; Vivian Smith, former Globe and Mail editor; and Mark Leiren-Young, freelance writer. Additionally, the panel was rounded out by self-declared ‘token millennial’ Quinn MacDonald, a recent UVic graduate, editor of Concrete Garden magazine, and experienced teaching assistant for previous Harvey lecturers.

Moderated by Leach, the panel discussed a variety of issues facing modern journalism, including the increased instability of print and local news, algorithm-incited filter bubbles, and, of course, fake news.

“The news cycle is so fast now, it’s really hard to get that [critical] depth,” said Quinn MacDonald of people who consume news. Particularly on social media, she noted, people, regardless of age, rarely take time to check sources before passing on information. “It’s not just the millennials that use Twitter too much, a lot of the stuff on Facebook — the [baby] boomers need to rein themselves in a little bit.”

JoAnn Roberts agreed, and paraphrased Jack Knox, a Times Colonist columnist, to say, “We’ve become a generation that goes straight from outrage to 140 characters  . . . Outrage is easy journalism.”

The panelists agreed that a major factor in declining news resources was a widespread reluctance when it comes to paying for journalism. Although the New York Times recently reported that their digital subscription revenue surpassed print advertising revenue to the tune of 22 million USD, most publications are struggling.

“I think that’s the biggest struggle with any kind of fake news battle,” said Quinn MacDonald. “Making sure that there is some kind of business model or community support that’s going to continue journalism, or it’s not going to exist.”

MacDonald recalled once asking a group of students how many of them invested in journalism, and “very few of them put up their hands for having paid anything, and that was kind of shocking, even as a fellow millennial,” she said. “There were these people who wanted to go into a profession that they weren’t willing to support financially.”

“You really have to subscribe to a newspaper,” Terry Glavin said. “If you don’t subscribe to at least one newspaper, you’re not participating in a serious conversation about these issues.”

Roberts advocated for prioritizing increased funding for journalism in Canada, comparing the CBC, which receives $30 per citizen a year, to the United Kingdom’s BBC, which gets $114. The CBC also broadcasts in five time zones, two official languages, and five First Nations languages, said Roberts, while the BBC is only required to broadcast in English and Welsh. Out of 18 countries with public broadcasting, Canada ranks 16th in overall allocated funds.

If funding comes from elsewhere, Roberts warned, the news is no longer neutral. “I think an important question all of us should ask is who’s paying for your news?” said Roberts. “As consumers, if we were asking more often who’s paying for what [we’re] consuming, [we’d be] halfway to knowing what they want from [us].”

As for the future of journalism, the panellists asserted that a utopian outcome wouldn’t come easily. “We need people to realize how important free press is, and how important journalism is to our democracy,” said Vivian Smith.

But MacDonald cited herself as evidence to prospective journalists that “as long as they get two or three other part-time jobs, they can make journalism work.”

At the very end of the discussion, Leach introduced Judith Pike, a documentarian and next semester’s Harvey Southam lecturer. “Honestly, I’m really excited,” said Pike after the event. “I don’t have a feeling of doom and gloom about [journalism]. For me, it’s a place where there’s lots of opportunity, and so I’m excited to bring that to the classroom.”

Though the future of journalism remained uncertain for many of the panellists, the large number of people who came out to engage in the discussion speaks to an enduring enthusiasm for diverse sources of quality journalism.    

“There’s a lot more pleasurable ways to make a living, but there’s not a lot more important things, though, especially at this historical moment,” said Leach in an interview prior to the event. “It’s you against the world . . . or you against Fox News.”

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