Journalism in the age of alt-facts and fake news the topic of Banff Centre conference

As newsrooms shrink, and fake news sites grow, it's getting harder and harder for people to know what sources to believe.

'Pointing out where the inaccurate facts and the fake news is, is more important than ever'

Scott Stossel, right, the keynote speaker at a conference at the Banff Centre this weekend called The Democracy Project: Journalism in the Age of Alt-Facts, says politicians like U.S. president Donald Trump, left, are contributing to the rise of so-called fake news. (Left photo: Dominick Reuter/Reuters. Right photo: Scott Stossel)

As newsrooms shrink, and fake news sites grow, it's getting harder and harder for people to know what sources to believe.

That's at the heart of a conference happening this weekend at the Banff Centre called The Democracy Project: Journalism in the Age of Alt-Facts.

The conference goes Friday to Sunday, featuring writers and journalists from magazines, newspapers and television news across North America. 

Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic magazine, is one of the panelists and appeared Thursday on the Calgary Eyeopener. Below is an abridged version of that conversation.

Q: What's an alt-fact? Do you believe in an alt-fact?

A: Yes, I believe they exist, but they are not true to reality, they are not truth. Alt-facts have always existed, there are always rumours and misapprehensions and misinterpretations and lies. But in America, in the age of [President Donald] Trump, they've proliferated and sort of been put on steroids, where now it is harder than ever to distinguish alt-facts from fact-facts and there are more alt-facts swimming around than ever before and are competing with the actual facts and that creates real problems for governance and politics and for people just trying to figure out what is actually going on in the world.

Q: What does that mean from your point of view as editor of The Atlantic magazine, has the role of the journalist changed or is it just the perception of the role of journalist?

A: I think there's more acute awareness of what the role of the journalist is and should be... Presenting true facts, accurate news, to people to help them figure out the world as it is at any given moment. And the need for that, for careful reporting, for pointing out where the inaccurate facts and the fake news is, is more important than ever in an era where you've got such a massive proliferation of fake news and where you've got the president of the United States actively disseminating fake news and actually trying to confuse people about what's fake news and what's real news, so the role of the journalist I think is more crucial.

Q: The president of the United States is back at it this morning with tweets coming out, I won't repeat them, people can check them out themselves, but fake news seems to be at the heart of it all. In the U.S. example, has the media had to be careful not to be too smug through all of this? Which is my way of asking, in the United States, is the public's skepticism [of media] justified?

A: It's something we have to be careful of it. Last week the New York Times put out rules about how its reporters and editors should appear on social media. Their concern was, particularly in this era when there is so much divisiveness, as well as fake facts, that anything that erodes the newspaper's status as the paper of record and arbiter of facts and truth is really a problem because it erodes the paper's credibility. We at The Atlantic feel the same way… trust at all institutions is down in the United States and across North America. Trust in the media is way down, in part because there has been such confusion sown by the likes of President Trump. Readers should be assured that reputable journalistic operations like The Atlantic and the New York Times and the Toronto Star and plenty of Canadian publications, we may not always get it exactly right but we aspire to get to objective truth to the best of our ability and that's ever more important in this age where politicians just lie wantonly.

Q: Of course we deal with it at the CBC as well, it has been a remarkable time in our profession because on one level you say 'perhaps we need some reflection, perhaps we need some soul searching in the face of all this skepticism.' On the flip side, you say 'no, the work should speak for itself.' But then the question comes, who are you reaching, are you only reaching those people who already believe you as a source, because in today's echo-chamber world on social media, everything has become so polarized.

A: In my darker moments, I think there is a lot of truth to what you just said, that we are only reaching the people who already are already predisposed to believe in kind of the post-enlightenment idea of empirical truth. But that's why it's so important for the CBC and The Atlantic and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and every other mainstream outlet, and non-mainstream media outlets for that matter, to eschew invective and partisan attacks and simply aspire to report and convey the truth to the best of our ability, and that's all we can really do. We can try to convince somebody who is in their own bubble that we are true and accurate, but if they are in a bubble and that belief is the CBC and The Atlantic are part of the mainstream media and are promulgating lies, it's very hard to break through to them. The only way we can do it is to do what we do best and that is to continue to seek the truth and to report it well and carefully and clearly for readers and not to lose our heads.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener