How can higher ed and the media respond to the “post-truth” era?

Are we truly living in a time of “post-truth”? That’s the question being asked by many higher education and media professionals who strive to provide credible insight and reliable information to a public that seems increasingly skeptical toward traditional forms of expertise. Compounding this challenge is the trend of populism and the “democratization of expertise” that has eroded the authority once accorded to academics and journalists. But where will this trend lead, and are academics and media professionals capable of restoring the public’s trust in accurate journalism and evidence-based research?

These are the questions that will unite higher education and media professionals at the upcoming Worldviews Conference to be held June 12-14th at the University of Toronto. The conference will attract a broad and diverse audience that includes academics, people working in the media (journalists, editors), researchers, university and college communications professionals, graduate students, and other interested members of the public.

The event’s list of speakers boasts an extremely impressive group of media company founders, world-class academic experts, Editors-in-Chief for international publications and news outlets, award-winning journalists, and many more. These speakers will engage with attendees in stirring presentations and discussions to address the wicked challenges facing the media and higher education in the 21st-century.

“Higher education and the media are absolutely connected in the challenges around media literacy and democratic participation facing many Western societies,” notes Shannon Sampert, Associate Professor and Founding Director, Media Centre for Public Policy and Knowledge Mobilization, University of Winnipeg. “We have evidence, for example, that when a community loses its local newspaper, you see a deflation in voter turnout. When people feel like they can’t access reliable information, they become disengaged from democratic life.”

Sampert will draw on her experience working as the editor of op-eds at the Winnipeg Free Press as part of a panel discussing creative solutions for building media literary and critical thinking in the public. “The fact is that when we talk about the decline of media literacy and critical thinking in the public, we need to acknowledge that the media itself is partly responsible. For decades now, we’ve seen journalists and news outlets giving a platform to things like climate change denial with an aim to creating ‘balance,’ but there’s a growing acknowledgement that there is nothing balanced about providing a megaphone to someone who’s arguments have zero basis in fact.”

In order to serve as a medium for reliable information, journalists must also communicate with those who create knowledge, and this is where collaborations between the media and higher education become crucial. Scott White, Editor of The Conversation Canada and former Editor-in-Chief at The Canadian Press, has made a mission of building academic-journalistic collaborations to ensure that the knowledge produced by the academy can inform both policy makers and the broader public.

Launched in June 2017, The Conversation Canada is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community delivered directly to the public. The organization’s team of professional editors works with experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public, with the aim of fostering better understanding of current affairs and complex issues and a higher quality of public discourse and conversations.

“When I came to The Conversation, I was concerned about the future of journalism in Canada,” notes Scott. “I think a lot of the large, department-store style outlets are not going to survive, and that we need to make sure that something emerges in their place to provide the reliable information necessary to a thriving democracy. It might not always seem like it, but I do believe that the majority of people out there are looking for accurate information, and that the problem is that they’ve come to question the reliability of their sources.”

For Sophia Rosenfeld, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, the response from higher ed and the media to the “post-truth” era has in many instances been one of confusion. “My sense in general is that both the media and higher education have been flummoxed, finding themselves in a crisis of authority,” notes Rosenfeld. “The places that people once looked to for information are not garnering the kind of trust they once did. In this instance, we can either hunker down and try to keep resting on traditional authority, or we can try to think of new ways to create some kind of dialogue from outside and inside the institutions.”

For Rosenfeld, a major part of the crisis in truth is an increasingly absolutist definition of free speech being adopted by large swathes of the public. “In its original historical conception, the basic idea behind free speech was that there was a rational public sphere, and that the best ideas would win out, and that we would all come to a loose consensus about what the world was like,” says Rosenfeld. “But this has been thrown into question by the current practice of politics and developments in information technology. Even when you fact-check a false claim now, you end up moving the original false claim higher up a Google search and, in a sense, spread it even more.”

In charting a way forward, Rosenfeld believes that higher ed and the media will need to find a way to re-establish the value of evidence while acknowledging the importance of beliefs that can be drawn from instinct and experience. “You don’t want to become a completely technocratic society,” concludes Rosenfeld, “but at the same time, you can’t set government policy by gut instinct with no concern for research and evidence, or for the kind of knowledge that is produced by sophisticated techniques that are learned in post-secondary institutions.”

Where Sampert, White, and Rosenfeld agree is that events like the Worldviews Conference provide an essential forum for members of the media, the academy, government, and the broader public to come together to discuss issues and co-create innovative solutions to the challenges of a “post-truth” world.

To learn more about the Worldviews Conference, peruse the incredible list of speakers, or register for the event, please visit the conference’s website.

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