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Master of Liberal Arts Discusses Journalism, Fake News and Social Media

Event shows what critical thinking looks like and why it is so necessary today

Panelists sitting at a table in front of a window.

The liberal arts are not dusty stacks of inaccessible texts to be reverently whispered over in oak-paneled classrooms; rather they are vital tools that may just be our society’s greatest hope at saving itself from narrow technical thinking on one hand and unquestioning complacency on the other. 

Critical Role of News Media in Society

How does this expansive and practical vision of the liberal arts in society apply to fake news and social media? Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) faculty member and panel moderator Andreas Glaeser invoked Hannah Arendt’s warning seventy years ago, of the danger to democracy when pervasive propaganda overturns the very idea of truth, and politics is reduced to a competition of lies. Does the news media have the power, and responsibility, to combat pervasive lies?

Ethan Michaeli (AB ’89), award-winning author and journalist, and Shamus Toomey, editor-in-chief of Block Club, offered their thoughts on the critical role of traditional news media at local, national, and international levels.

“If you look historically,” Toomey said, “I think we’d see how the press has served as a check on government by staying true to its own separate agenda and speaking for the broadest public. In recent years, what seems to have happened is that the media has fractured to the point where there’s more reporting on the fringes and it’s getting more and more difficult to see who’s acting on your behalf.”

Less than half of Americans today are able to name a news source they find objective, prompting an examination of media trust.

“Both Shamus and myself, in our careers in journalism, have worked hard to diversify the voices reporting the news,” Michaeli said. “When you get down to the neighborhood level and when people look at your news organization and see people that look like their neighbors, I think that goes a long way toward rebuilding that kind of trust we see as lost.”

Historically...the press has served as a check on government by staying true to its own separate agenda and speaking for the broadest public. In recent years, what seems to have happened is that the media has fractured to the point where there’s more reporting on the fringes and it’s getting more and more difficult to see who’s acting on your behalf.

Shamus Toomey

Shamus Toomey, , Editor-in-Chief of Block Club

Social Media and the Echo Chamber

As the panelists and moderator agreed, the effects of social media on isolating people within their newsfeeds have been especially devastating in this regard, particularly since the algorithms responsible for what we see are designed specifically to echo ideas and beliefs we already possess.

“Your Facebook feed will spin you down that rabbit hole,” Toomey said. “Your Twitter feed will give you exactly what you signed up for. Knowing that you’re being manipulated helps. At a certain point, you can’t just blame the media. It’s on you and you have to take ownership for the way you curate your news sources. You have to ask yourself whether you’re listening to the right sources while taking steps to understand and verify the credibility of the news you’re hearing.”

Wrapping up the evening, current MLA students weighed in with critical analysis. Pam Reyes drew attention to language and subjective reporting. 

The Responsibility of Journalism


MLA audience in chairs facing panelists

“My question is about three words you’ve been using—fact, truth, and opinion. If there’s one reporter in a room with politicians and she’s the only one writing the story, how is what she selects news and not just her opinion regarding what happened? It becomes her opinion whether it’s wrong or right. Where is the line between news and opinion?”

Will Gane pressed upon the challenges faced by news media to present information in ways that attract readership without sacrificing objectivity and balance. 

Zack Brown, graduating MLA student, pushed beyond journalism to raise a more profound concern about the general loss in contemporary society of either willingness or ability to evaluate information and facts.  

“One thing I wonder about, especially since we’re at UChicago talking about behavioral economics and confirmation bias, is whether it’s a failure of journalism or is it something deeper when people don’t believe something because they don’t want to believe it? It’s hard for me to believe that the fact that people believe humans aren’t contributing to climate change is really a failure of journalism, since it seems like there’s been so much good work done in that area. Is there a way to convince people when they have a political or financial stake in believing in something? How do we engage with them and get them to honestly evaluate arguments from different sides?”

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Philip Baker

Philip Baker

Staff Writer

Philip Baker is a staff writer at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the College with a degree in English.

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