Under attack, American journalism prevails say Poynter Fellows

Journalists joined Yale professors for discussions about "fake news" and the state of journalism in America today.

Despite unprecedented pressure from the American government, “this is the golden age for journalism, especially investigative journalism,” said Yale history professor Timothy Snyder during the “Truth and the Internet Age” Poynter public forum at Yale Law School on Nov. 9.

Snyder, one of the featured speakers at the forum, was not alone in suggesting criticism from the Trump administration is bringing out the best in the press.

Some of the best journalism is being done right now because we are being pressed up against a wall,” said Jeff Ballou, news editor at Al Jazeera Media Network and president of the National Press Club.

First panel for "Truth and the Internet Age"
The first group of panelists were (from left) veteran journalist Mort Rosenblum; Jenifer Fenton, Poynter Fellow in Residence; Jeff Ballou, news editor at Al Jazeera Media Network and president of the National Press Club; and Yale Professor Jason Stanley.

The wall, separating journalists and the White House administration, has been built from the top down, he noted President Trump’s personal and general attacks on correspondents and news organizations revolve around his favorite term to delegitimize the media: “fake news,” which was announced last week as Collins Dictionary’s 2017 Word Of The Year.

Ballou said he detests the phrase “fake news” because news is inherently fact. Fellow speaker Mort Rosenblum, veteran reporter and professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, disputed the expression.

The problem is not ‘fake’ news, but badly reported news. Anyone can step up to the mic these days, and the public does not know who they can trust,” said Rosenblum. The plethora of polarizing voices posing as journalists are what Ballou calls the cesspool “not bound by the rules of journalism and contaminating the right of free speech.”

Journalism is not just compromised by the explosion of opinions thinly veiled as reality, but also by reporting spectacle over significance, according to Jason Stanley, Yale philosophy professor and author of the book “How Propaganda Works.”

Photo of second panel at "Truth in the Internet Age: The War on Truth"
The second panel of the evening featured (from left) Yale Professor Timothy Snyder; Eileen O'Connor, vice president for communications at Yale; and Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based independent political weekly The New Times.

We are dumbing down the news. We are not getting to the essence of what really matters and delivering it to the people who need it. That is how propaganda works. Its goal is to use the news to undermine the function of news and make it into entertainment,” said Stanley.

Snyder argued that Americans share some blame in their role as consumers of sensationalism. He said the news has to conform to certain styles in order to compete and one approach is to appeal to the audience through outrage.

That outrage has, in some instances, been focused on the journalists themselves, said Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based independent political weekly The New Times, who described an incident in which a Russian colleague had been stabbed by someone incensed by his reporting. She expressed concern that it might soon be “open season on journalists in the United States.”

Delivery is part of the problem, which means we are part of the problem. As American citizens we need to take a little bit of responsibility. We like the outrage. We need to meet the good journalists halfway,” said Snyder.

For all the challenges to objective and quality journalism, he encouraged students considering careers in the field to become these ‘good journalists.’

Going out in the world and using language to convey important events to people you don’t know … that is a noble calling,” he said.

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