In Towson, journalists, citizens grapple with changing media landscape in era of 'fake news'

Six Baltimore-area journalists told about 30 audience members Tuesday night at the Towson Branch Library that journalism is facing a crisis: a deterioration in trust in the media in the era of “fake news.”

“For democracy to work you have to have accurate information you can trust,” said David Zurawik, media critic on the Baltimore Sun’s opinion desk. Today’s information system is “polluted, it’s toxic … it is a really dangerous time right now,” he said.

The Oct. 16 panel drew strong words about the fate of journalism at a time when attacking the media is seen as a political tool, and fact-based news is more difficult than ever to spot amid a torrent of unverified online content.

“I am scared, very scared for my grandchildren and for this planet, and fake news is one of the major factors” said Larry Fogelson, of Rodgers Forge, who attended the forum.

Lori Hench, an adult and community engagement librarian with the Baltimore County library system, said the library chose to host a series on fake news in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Media literacy, Hench said, fits in well with the library’s mission of educating the public and creating a safe space to exchange ideas.

“We’d like people to, as they listen to the news … to stop and think about who created this and why,” Hench said.

Several programs on fake news and propaganda have already taken place around the county, Hench said. One more, called "Fake News: How to Spot It,” is scheduled for 2 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Catonsville branch.

WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller moderated the five-person panel, which included journalists who work in local television, print and radio.

Miller opened the event by telling a story about a 2002 gubernatorial candidate forum hosted by WBAL in which the station was accused of treating Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend “with kid gloves” and seeming biased against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

“People were just furious; we heard about it for weeks,” Miller said. “What we didn’t have was Ehrlich accusing us of fake news … he didn’t come at us tooth and nail.”

That event stands in striking contrast to today’s politics, in which President Donald Trump is “leading the charge to discredit mainstream journalism,” Miller said.

WMAR-2 news anchor Kelly Swoope said even the objectivity of journalists in traditional news outlets is being attacked from all sides.

“No matter what you do, you’re accused of being on one side or another,” Swoope said. And social media, she and other panelists agreed, has intensified the pressure.

Jamyla Krempel, a digital producer for public radio station WYPR, said she treads carefully around social media for fear of “being referred to as biased.” Though she uses social media for her station, she said she tends to moderate her personal use of it and avoids online debates.

But being unbiased is more complicated than telling two equal sides of the same story, said John Kirch, a Towson University professor and editor of student news outlet The Baltimore Watchdog. “That’s being a stenographer,” he said. President Trump, who often utters falsehoods when speaking publicly, has prompted more journalists to “call out people when they are lying,” Kirch said.

Some of the public’s drop in trust in the media, Swoope said later, could come from the blurring of lines between analysts and reporters. Zurawik agreed, pointing to an emerging “revolving door” between politics and television news at the national level in which former political operatives are hired as news analysts, and vice versa.

The panelists also talked about blurred lines between news reporting and “activist” journalism. As an example, Bryan Sears, a reporter with the Daily Record, said, “A reporter would never file an ethics complaint against a public official.”

Sears shared basic media literacy advice, such as checking sources and looking up an emotional story in a search engine before sharing it on social media.

“If you’re on social media, you’re publishing, too,” Sears said, adding that people on social media are seen as trusted news sources for their friends.

Barbara Carter, an audience member from Columbia, said after the event that media ethics are important to her.

“I believe in the ethics of journalism, and I hope very much [journalists] do not lose sight,” she said.

At one point, Miller asked Kirch about the future of journalism. She referenced Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has said that the “golden age of journalism” is behind us, and asked: “Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?”

“That’s the scariest question you could have asked me,” Kirch replied.

asolomon@baltsun.com

twitter.com/libsolomon

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