In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the traditional role of media as the gatekeepers of democracy is increasingly in jeopardy.
Hundreds of people thus gathered in Israel for a two-day event dubbed "Journalism under Siege" to tackle the most significant challenges facing reporters in an ever-changing milieu in which news is often produced in 280 characters and disseminated across the world at the touch of a button.
To this end, The Media Line's president and CEO, Felice Friedson, gave opening remarks emphasizing that public trust in the press is eroding. She cited a recent Pew Research Center poll that found that Americans are more concerned with made-up news than issues like racism and terrorism.
“When we watched Walter Cronkite, he said something and we, his viewers, didn't second guess him or doubt his source,” Friedson asserted. “Today, our end users are questioning the source – even on the increasingly rare occasions when full attribution is given. It’s a crisis.”
Another keynote speaker, Scott Kraft, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, warned of diminishing press freedom during the Trump Administration, while one workshop focused on developments in, and the growing impact of, on-demand, mobile journalism.
Other sessions were led by individuals such as Johnny Harris, a senior journalist at Vox, who discussed the power that media images and longer-form videos can have on shaping public opinion; and Linda Qiu, the lone full-time fact-checker at The New York Times, who spoke of the importance of separating truth from fiction amid masses of information.
Qui noted that there has been tremendous growth in this sphere, with about 180 related outlets worldwide, including in Israel. She stressed the importance of analyzing statements within the correct context, especially given the intense partisan divide in the U.S.
The Media Line asked Qui how, in such a polarized political atmosphere, and given the right or left bent of most news outlets, fact-checkers can be trusted to maintain objectivity.
“I don’t expect all readers to agree with my conclusions,” Qui responded, “but everyone can see the work that is put into [making a determination].” Moreover, she added, “I have never felt any pressure from my editors to [toe the line].”
Coincidentally, Qui’s presentation came just hours after the NYT announced that it would no longer include political cartoons in its international edition, which in April published a caricature of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu widely condemned as anti-Semitic. The image depicted the Israeli leader as a guide dog bedecked with a Star of David collar, leading a blind U.S. President Donald Trump wearing a Jewish skullcap.
The political dimensions of the conference also included an address by Joseph Federman, Associated Press bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, who briefed attendees on the complexities of reporting from conflict zones. Dan Meridor, former Israeli deputy prime minister and chairman of the advisory board of the Jerusalem Press Club (JPC), which organized and hosted the symposium, discussed diminishing press freedoms throughout the world resulting from the widespread rejection of traditional democratic norms and attacks on the legitimacy of universal values and the rule of law.
Uri Dromy, Director General of the JPC, told The Media Line that journalists are facing significant challenges.
"In many countries reporters are persecuted, thrown into jail or even murdered.… Then there are the attacks on the media coming from heads of state, such as President [Donald] Trump in the U.S. Here in Israel," he noted, "[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is equating the media with the left and blaming reporters for orchestrating a coup against him. [President] Victor Orban in Hungary, [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, so there is a trend of undermining the press freedom, which, in turn, leads to the undermining of democracy."
In order to remedy the situation, he said, also requires "strengthening the professionalism of journalists who may be sloppy and make errors. This would empower reporters and allow them to stand against such attacks. At the same time, it is important to educate the public so that they become media savvy and are able to read newspapers, watch television and understand what they are being told—whether there are strings attached, where the information comes from. So it is a two-way street.
Prof. Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, Founding Dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, who also addressed the conference, explained to The Media Line what he believes must be done in order to restore the public’s trust in journalism.
"Today, most journalists do not separate opinion from facts. They have to learn to check their egos and remember their professional ethics of reporting the facts and then allow the audience to interpret them," he said. To achieve this, reporters need to be more modest.… They must admit when they make mistakes, although the [retractions] usually end up being published on the back pages."
Lemelshtrich Latar also believes that journalists themselves have a role to play by conveying information to the public in a manner that they will be receptive.
"Today, the public is not interested in the truth. People are interested in opinions that will strengthen their pre-conceived notions. For journalists that really seek to tell the truth and seek influence they have to overcome this cognitive barrier on the part of consumers who do not want to listen to information that is contradictory to what they already think."
Overall, the central theme of the event was that as people everywhere increasingly embrace populist forms of government, if not outright authoritarianism, it is becoming more difficult for journalists to operate independently. This problem, in turn, is exacerbated by an endless bombardment of data that is nearly impossible to sift through, which makes sourcing and compiling articles that more challenging.
Accordingly, if reporters are to continue fulfilling their historical function, they will require new methods based on innovative technologies that enable them to circumvent obstacles while staying safe in order to get the story right.
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