Journalism in the Age of Fake News

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By: Karen Sullivan

Growing up in the eighties content was scarce, and binge watching yet to be imagined. A typical evening at my house ended with Walter Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.” There never seemed reason to doubt what I saw on the television, because back then in my childhood the news appeared to simply be news. As I grew up the lens through which I viewed the world broadened. Experiences that didn’t match theory forced me to examine and question everything, even the news. I was changing so were the faces I saw on the television. The anchors we had watched throughout my childhood were retiring and the implementation of a 24-hour news cycle had begun. Emerging sources like Fox News, and CNN were taking over the airwaves. The competition to keep viewers tuning in had created a need for dramatic content, and this need has been perpetual ever since.  At nineteen my now critical eye was given the chance to see Wag the Dog and David Mamet’s writing opened my mind to a world my existential crisis could relate to. What was truth and how would I know when I faced it?

Fast forward almost twenty years later to the screening of filmmaker Ananda More’s movie Magic Pills.  I was reminded of the many feelings I was so deeply moved by in my formative years. In her eye-opening work the viewer witnesses Ananda contact the Managing Editor of the Walrus Foundation after being misquoted. I was taken back to those late 90’s moments spent watching Dustin Hoffman while listening to the words that were being spoken to Ananda in present day.  She was told that in long form journalism decisions are made to shape or craft a narrative. The Managing Editor’s response did nothing to dispute Ananda’s experiential belief that the publication was not interested in looking at all sides of the topic.  In the end she had given an interview where the information she provided to the writer was falsely reported and the kicker was that there was no recourse. I wondered how it was possible that you could speak to a journalist only to have the opposite of what you said be published? Although the Walrus Foundation describes itself as a charity publishing fact-based journalism, it seemed when looking through the Magic Pills camera lens, that is not what came into focus.

What readers may not know is that some news publications may contain news. Long-form journalism can be based on fact or it can be creative non-fiction. Meaning a long-form author writing one thousand plus word articles has the freedom to base their piece on fact without it necessarily being factual. In the eighties these longer articles would appear in magazines such as Readers Digest. However, there has been a recent crossover into print media with publications such as the New York Times now including the style.  We can see clearly through Ananda’s experience how these articles can leave readers on their own to decipher news from opinion. I would argue long-form provides a perfect loophole for trickery. In the past, opinion journalism was transparent or maybe that was just my naive belief. Magic Pills demonstrated that what the Walrus reported to its readers was far from transparent.

When I went to the film Magic Pills, I was not anticipating an education in media, but I am thankful Ananda took me back to my Journalism school days. Her film reminds viewers that there is “fake news” out there and sometimes in places we may not think to look. Age and perspective leave me to ponder what the next twenty years in media will look like and how as a collective we will navigate our way. Perhaps with the recent emergence of blockchain technology, that is at its core idealistically trust-less, we will get the chance to see an emergence of new media platforms we can dare to believe in.   

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