By Paige Schlichte
“Fake news” is a term that has circulated widely in public discourse in recent years, and a WorldCanvass discussion Wednesday night at MERGE, 136 S. Dubuque St., aimed to explore the issue of journalism and a free press in an era of growing fake news.
WorldCanvass host Joan Kjaer said the program aims to examine topics of international interest that also affect Iowans through discussions by panelists such as community members, university faculty, researchers, and other experts.
The discussions are recorded and distributed as podcasts on several platforms.
“The idea comes from one of the missions of the University of Iowa’s International Program, which is to engage with the community on issues of public importance that have strong repercussions for Iowans,” Kjaer said. “This topic of fake news is so much on everyone’s mind these days, and we have a number of people here for fall residency at the International Writing Program that will be sharing their own perspective and history on this issue.”
Four current writers from the IWP shared their experiences with freedom of the press and information as journalists, poets, and fiction writers in their home countries.
A portion of the discussion, led by IWP Director Christopher Merrill and Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication David Ryfe, revolved around a possible way out of the cynicism the press is subject to.
“There’s never been more news produced, and never less of it by journalists. That’s the problem journalism finds itself in,” Ryfe said. “Along the way, audiences have fragmented, and they don’t only rely on journalists anymore to provide them news.”
Ryfe said the period in which journalists acted as the gatekeepers of information only spanned from approximately the 1930s to 1995, when the Internet became widely available and undermined journalism’s business model.
Prior to the 1930s, journalism as a profession didn’t exist, and many different people produced the news; Ryfe thinks reverting to this era is one of the possibilities for the future of journalism.
“The other option is that journalism reconsolidates in some form, and I don’t see how that happens,” Ryfe said. “There are too many different groups that are benefiting from access to the means of producing and distributing news.
Merrill approaches the topic of fake and fragmented news from a different angle, having covered the war in what was formerly Yugoslavia for several years, and he gained up-close experience of what happens when news is used as propaganda. He said it is often the first step toward authoritarianism.
“If you don’t have a free flow of information or a president who labels news he doesn’t like as fake news, what you’re doing is destroying our faith in the first amendment,” Merrill said. “You’re injecting into the media environment this kind of uncertainty about what it is that journalists do. You’re delegitimizing the free press, which is central to the American experiment in liberty.”
When it comes to fake news, Merrill said, he finds hope in the consistently credible news sources remaining and late-night TV comedians like Jimmy Kimmel who keep the White House in check.
“We have to hope that allegiance to sound reporting and to gathering the truth in every possible way will win out,” Merrill said.