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Fact or Fiction: The Challenges of ‘Getting it Right’ About News, Facts, and Truth

On March 13, 2024, Medill Northwestern University’s Dean Charles Whitaker delivered compelling insights to the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations, exposing the long decline of local news outlets and its profound ramifications for the information landscape. With insightful analysis, he delved into the causes of this decline, but more sobering, the repercussions of relying on news sources providing unchecked, unreliable, or worse, untrue information..

Why it’s Important: Implications of News Deserts

Dean Whitaker cited that over half of US counties lack access to reliable news, with 205 counties devoid of local news entirely, and 1,500 others relying on struggling outlets on the verge of collapse. This crisis is worsened by a historic low in media trust, which drives people towards biased “echo chambers” that reinforce their beliefs, eroding a consensus on truth. Whitaker pointed to the consequence, often a critical lack of watchdogs overseeing state legislatures and financial affairs, a situation riddled with its own set of challenges. 

Whitaker emphasized how local news outlets historically served as community hubs, fostering unity and discourse. Their absence leaves a void, with no communal space to bring diverse voices together. Social media platforms have filled this gap, with 3 out of 10 US adults citing Facebook as their regular news source (Pew Research Center). Although convenient, this merely reinforces pre-existing beliefs and impedes consensus-building by customizing content to individual preferences, often neglecting important issues. Additionally, social media grants unrestricted posting privileges to anyone, regardless of credibility, resulting in rampant misinformation and societal division. Whitaker underscored the significance of cultivating well-informed citizens, as it lays the foundation for establishing a collective understanding of truth.

  • What protocols should be and could be established on social media platforms to ensure credible information?

  • Should social media platforms be required to provide content that displays both sides of an issue?

  • What does a well-informed citizen look like? What content should they be consuming?

  • How do we cultivate well-informed citizens when they lack the inclination to learn or fail to recognize the importance of caring about certain issues?

  • How can we address the reluctance of individuals to engage with news content, often citing its negativity or reliance on fear tactics?

Why Are Local News Outlets Disappearing?

As local news sources continue to decline, still primarily reliant on the advertising-driven business models of the past, the pressure on experimentation and investment grows. Whitaker believes in news and information being a fundamental right, increasing the need for innovation. However, amidst the digital revolution, this business model has been disrupted, allowing anyone to publish content online for free, bypassing traditional gatekeepers. While certain sectors like sports and health news have managed to thrive, political news has declined. The challenge lies in garnering interest in paying for political news. The pervasiveness of free online content has eroded the perceived value in paying for local news. 

This broken business model leads people to seek news elsewhere, regardless of its reliability. Moreover, the concept of individuals receiving the "same news" online has been distorted by misinformation, pseudo-journalism, and manipulation through platforms like ChatGPT. Furthermore, the inability to distinguish between authentic and false news complicates matters for social media users, often leading them to accept content that aligns with their existing beliefs without critical examination. Unlike traditional news sources that would challenge various viewpoints, social media platforms now allow individuals to selectively consume content that reinforces their own opinions, enabling them to dismiss opposing arguments altogether – an appealing advantage to those who don’t want to pay for news.

  • How can news media convey the perceived value of paying for news to someone who is reluctant?

  • How can credibility be enforced in a digital arena where anyone is able to post?

  • What are possible business models that could be used to transform and sustain the journalism industry?

  • Should news outlets be subsidized by the government?

What is Being Done to Change Journalism?

Whitaker elaborated on the evolving landscape of journalism education, emphasizing a shift towards a more broad exposure; one that cultivates multifaceted skills across journalism domains, as well as the importance of understanding technology that drives all media. He highlighted the necessity for students to cultivate multifaceted skills across all journalistic domains, alongside a firm grasp of technology and social media best practices. Notably, there's a growing emphasis on solutions journalism, reflecting a departure from merely shedding light on issues to actively reporting on initiatives aimed at resolving them. Emphasizing community engagement, he underscored the importance of involving communities in the conversation, fostering more impactful change at the grassroots level. 

Moreover, discussions are underway regarding the integration of mandatory media literacy classes in high schools, aiming to equip students with the tools to navigate social media and discern misinformation reiterating the importance of critical thinking in combating the proliferation of fake news, especially as technology advances. Whitaker emphasized the importance of staying vigilant about our media consumption, urging readers to employ critical thinking skills. By questioning, fact-checking, and understanding that not everything we encounter is necessarily true, we can navigate the media landscape more effectively, mitigating the impact of misinformation. Despite the absence of a definitive new business model for journalism, broadly, and local news in particular, it's evident that the future of the field will diverge significantly from traditional norms, with the challenge lying in defining this new paradigm.

  • Should a license exam be mandatory for journalists to establish their credibility online? Would this facilitate a clearer distinction between credible and unreliable news sources online?

  • What type of content should be covered in a media literacy course?

  • Can we anticipate potential disruptions in journalism comparable to those of the digital revolution?

  • Should fake news publishers face consequences in order to mitigate the spread of misinformation or would this contradict the 1st amendment? 


Pew Research Center. (2024, February 2). 5 facts about how Americans use Facebook, two decades after its launch | Pew Research Center.,%25)%20and%20TikTok%20(14%25).

Dean Charles Whitaker’s discussion at the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations Event on March 13, 2024.

Ana O'Neill with Dean Charles Whitaker at the Tucson Country Club

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