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Staff reporter

Scholars, journalists and educators from around the world will gather in Toronto this spring to discuss the state of local journalism, develop new research initiatives and explore solutions for communities that are underserved in terms of access to local news.

“Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” will take place June 3 to 4, 2017 on Ryerson University’s campus in downtown Toronto. Organized by more than a dozen journalism scholars from across Canada and hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre (RJRC), the purpose of the conference is to inform and promote public discussion about the state of local news and provide a forum for an exchange of ideas among researchers, practicing journalists and journalism educators.

“In discussions about the media, we tend to think a lot about what’s happening at the national level with national media or the big players,” said April Lindgren, the RJRC’s academic director. “But the reality is many, many people in many, many communities get a lot of their information from their local media – or at least they used to.

“This event will be an opportunity to highlight problems and share ideas, research methods and information about possible solutions for communities where the critical information needs of citizens aren’t being met.”

The opening day of the conference will feature two panels that are open to all members of the public and are free of charge. The first panel will provide an overview of local news-related research undertaken by scholars in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The second consists of speakers who will provide first-hand accounts about why local news matters: “We wanted to look really concretely at the impact of reporting in communities,” Lindgren said. The lineup of speakers for this panel includes a representative of Toronto’s black community, who will discuss the impact of the Toronto Star’s coverage of random police checks on minority communities, and a city councillor from Guelph, Ont. who will talk about the availability of local news in the aftermath of the closure of the Guelph Mercury daily newspaper.

On Saturday afternoon and Sunday, conference registrants will also hear from more than 50 speakers on topics that include:

  • new research and methodologies, including the results of a major project that is investigating the availability of local news in 100 U.S. communities
  • experiments designed to improve the quality and quantity of local news
  • issues related to police and crime reporting at the local level
  • the challenges faced by local newspapers and television stations
  • the impact of media ownership/concentration on the provision of local news
  • local news coverage in Indigenous communities
  • the role of schools of journalism in meeting local news needs
  • how local news can foster understanding in diverse communities

The conference takes place amidst growing concerns over the state of local news media in many jurisdictions. In Canada, the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee held hearings over the past year on how communities are informed about local news through broadcast, digital and print media.

Think tanks have also joined the local news conversation. After observing that “towns and cities continue to lose their local news sources, major city newspapers and TV stations are bleeding staff and the industry is scrambling to find ways of securing revenue and holding the public’s trust and interest,” the Institute for Research on Public Policy launched a series of articles exploring the future of Canadian journalism.

The Public Policy Forum, meanwhile, recently released a new report that includes survey results indicating that 69 per cent of respondents think having access to less local news coverage is a serious consequence of news media decline. The same survey also suggested that while Canadians value journalism and believe it is essential to a well-functioning democracy, they don’t want to pay for it.

CLICK HERE to find out more about conference sessions that are open at no cost to non-registrants or to register for the full program ($75 for regular registration; $30 for students).

Staff Reporter

Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News, delivers this year’s Atkinson lecture on fake news at the Ryerson School of Journalism. (Jasmine Bala)

Most fake news creators are doing it for the money rather than for ideological reasons, a leading authority on fake news and verification said at the annual Ryerson School of Journalism Atkinson lecture.

Craig Silverman, the media editor for BuzzFeed News, said two Canadian teenagers who create fake news stories have earned as much as $10,000 a month from advertising after their fabricated accounts about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spread on the Internet.

“Most of the people I’ve encountered tend to be small operators,” he told the crowd of mostly journalism students. “Sometimes they’ll try to pretend that they’re exposing how gullible people are, like they have some higher mission, but really, they do it for money and that’s why they exist.

“The more eyeballs they get on a particular URL, the more money they earn” from advertisements placed on their sites by Google AdSense and other services they’ve signed up for, he said.

In his reporting, Silverman has exposed teenagers in Veles, Macedonia who wrote fake news about Donald Trump because it was, as the teenagers told him, an “easy way to make money.” Among the fake news on the Macedonian sites was a claim that the pope had endorsed Trump for president. This story was considered one of the Macedonian creators’ five most successful posts, he reported.

Silverman’s work as the founder of real-time rumour tracker, Emergent, and as editor of the Verification Handbook, has helped journalists all over the world sort fact from fiction on the Internet. During the U.S. presidential election, he said, the number of fake news sites and stories far exceeded anything he’d seen before.

In Canada, he added, the economic opportunity for fake news creators is somewhat limited because the market is smaller and the economic returns are smaller. He suggested that ideologically motivated fake news, therefore, may play a bigger role in the Canadian context.

“I haven’t seen a [large] amount of fake news directed in Canada,” Silverman said. “I suspect that it’s not going to be as big of a concern here. However, because we’re English-speaking and because we consume a lot from the United States, I think there is kind of a bleed over from other places.”

Fake news stories rely on viral hits as they “don’t have a consistent audience that keeps coming back,” he added, so they fare best on platforms such as Facebook, where there’s a potential for lots of shares.

Silverman said, however, that fake news on social media platforms is just one contributor to the “ecosystem of misinformation.” Others include official sources of propaganda, hoaxsters, “unintentional propagators” who inadvertently spread false information and “malicious propagators” who set out to deliberately mislead. News websites staffed by journalists who don’t properly verify information also contribute to the spread of fake news, he said.

The problem is compounded, he added, by an overall decline of public trust in the mainstream media and a growing tendency to rely on information posted by friends and family on Facebook – including information that may not be true.

Following the U.S. election in November, Silverman’s story documenting how the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more shares, reactions and comments than the top stories from major news organizations reverberated around the world.

“[Fake news] really feeds people’s passions, people’s political beliefs and things that they strongly, strongly believe,” Silverman said. “If you can tap into that and tell them what they want to hear, then they tend to react. That means likes on Facebook, shares on Facebook, clicks and other things.”

To maximize those clicks and shares, he said, the purveyors of fake news target two human psychological behaviours: our desire to consume information that aligns with our own beliefs and our desire to make sense of information in situations of uncertainty.

“Anything that tells us what we want to hear or tells us what we want to believe – there’s actually a physiological reaction that makes us feel good about it,” he said. “In a world where Facebook exists, you take action with likes, reactions, comments and shares. And when we encounter information that we disagree with – that goes against what we think – we tend to reject it.

“The other thing is that when there’s a lack of information – when there’s a dangerous scenario –rumours naturally start to come out because as humans we’re trying to figure out what’s actually going on…People want to fill in the gaps and if someone tells you something that sort of makes sense, you might accept that information” without questioning whether it is true.

Algorithms, he said, exacerbate the problem: “The more you engage with certain types of content, the more you will be shown that as well. So, if you see this stuff and you react strongly to it, you will probably be fed more of it [by algorithms] over time.

“You may not have thought Hillary Clinton was a criminal at first, but maybe a few months after seeing all of this stuff, all of a sudden, you’re not so sure; maybe there is some stuff, maybe she should be locked up. And over time [fake news and misinformation] can have these kinds of effects.”

Silverman said that journalists are not immune from the human inclination to believe information that aligns with what they believe and ignore or downplay information that conflicts with their worldview.

“We’re not separate from [everyone else] just because we go to journalism school [or] we work in a newsroom,” he said. “So be aware of your own biases, be aware of how emotions [and] psychology play into the things that you’re doing and actively try to consume information that doesn’t align with some of your beliefs…That viewpoint and psychological diversity is [just as] important as other forms of diversity [that] are hugely important in our newsrooms.”

In this ear of an “abundance of information” and a “scarcity of attention,” he added, journalists can learn some things from the authors of fake news.

“A scarcity of attention means trying to get people’s attention is that much harder,” he said. “So, thinking about how you go for their emotion and thinking about how you cut through – [these are] some of the things that the [creators of] fake news do.

“We’re competing with that kind of stuff and we have these completely [detached and factual] reports – that’s not going to [get shares]. You have to think about how you’re packaging [the facts] and presenting them. How you can make them relevant to people in terms of their life [and] also have a connection with them emotionally…not just passively shovelling stuff to people, but actually getting folks engaged and having them help propagate what we’re reporting because if we have to compete [with fake news], then we have to get people propagating our stuff as well.”

Watch the full lecture here:

The annual Atkinson Lecture at the Ryerson School of Journalism is made possible by an Atkinson Charitable Foundation endowment in honour of former Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson.

Staff Reporter

Moderator Christopher Waddell (Carleton University journalism professor) and panelists Edward Greenspon (Public Policy Forum president),  April Lindgren (Ryerson School of Journalism instructor) and Allan Gregg (Earnscliffe Strategy Group principal) discuss the journalism industry’s financial woes at a Canadian Journalism Foundation panel.

Although Canadians value journalism and believe it is essential to a well-functioning democracy, they don’t want to pay for it, concludes a new study that examined the state of Canadian news media.

A survey conducted as part of the Public Policy Forum (PPF) report, “The Shattered Mirror,” found that the Canadians surveyed do not make a connection between the news industry’s layoffs, closures and other financially-induced problems and what this means for the amount of news available to themselves as readers.

“They assume much like dancers will always dance, painters will always paint, journalists will always cover stories,” said Allan Gregg, principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, which conducted the poll.

“They make no linkage whatsoever to the absence of revenue to news gathering organizations with the inability to pay journalists.”

A 2016 Reuter’s poll cited in the PPF report showed that only nine per cent of those surveyed in Canada pay for online news.

Gregg was joined by April Lindgren, academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and Ed Greenspon, president of the Public Policy Forum, at the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Jan. 28 talk: “The Changing Ways Canadians Get Their News.” The panel discussion followed the release earlier in the day of the forum’s report and its policy recommendations.

The survey of 1,500 Canadians, conducted this past fall between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2,  found that 70 per cent of respondents think that news has a major role to play in democracy and 60 per cent think that journalists play a major role.

When they were asked to assess the consequences of the decline of news organizations, 73 per cent of people surveyed said having less investigative reporting would be a serious problem and 69 per cent said having less coverage of local news would be a serious consequence of news media decline. Having no one around to keep politicians honest or hold powerful interests accountable were considered serious problems by 68 per cent of respondents.

Gregg said the survey results also suggest Canadians hold journalists in high regard –so much so that they balk at the possibility of the government intervening to bail out the news business. Only 25 per cent of those surveyed said they believe government should help struggling news businesses. Respondents said that journalists’ ability to act as watchdogs on power would be compromised by government involvement in the news industry.

“It is the very thing they value most about news – its role in democracy, especially holding the powerful to account – that forms the objection to government doing anything to get the industry out of the dilemma it obviously faces,” said Gregg.

Forty-four per cent of survey resonsdents said they agreed they would be concerned about journalist’s ability to cover governments if said governments financially supported the news business. Another 24 per cent indicated that they strongly agreed.

Although the poll data make it clear that Canadians feel inundated with news, most said they had little to no information about the industry’s economic challenges.

“Fewer than half – which is kind of ironic – have heard, read or seen anything about news organizations facing business and financial difficulties,” said Gregg. “(It) is not part of the public consciousness.”

He pointed to possible explanations for the disconnect between the importance Canadians place on journalism in democracy and their lack of awareness of the news industry’s financial woes: “They haven’t really come to grips – they haven’t started thinking about the demise of newsgathering organizations – what it means to me as an informed citizen,” he suggested. “Or they simply reject the premise that declining news gathering organizations would result in the decline of availability of news.”

Lindgren, who leads the Local News Research Project, has been investigating what she calls “local news poverty” in Canadian communities. Her research, she says, suggests that local news is available unevenly across the country and is increasingly at risk. Data from The Local News Map, which she created with the University of British Columbia’s Jon Corbett, shows 171 local news outlets have closed in 131 communities across the country. The list of closures documented on the crowd-sourced map includes 120 community newspapers.

Another study by the Local News Research Project examined the output of local news outlets in eight Canadian communities and found major differences in how much reporting they did on the local race for MP during the 2015 federal election.

“Where you live is a big factor in the availability of local news,” Lindgren said, noting that her research shows digital-first outlets do not seem to be filling the gap left by the loss of more traditional news producers.

Greenspon said the challenge in writing the PPF report was “how do you design something that supports journalism without the government gaining undue leverage?”

Some of the report’s 12 recommendations, he said, are “no-brainer(s),” including changes to Canada’s charitable status laws. Current rules that limit the resources a charity can devote to advocacy before having its status revoked have historically limited charitable funding of journalism initiatives in Canada.

The report says the “chilling” provisions related to charitable giving reflect “priorities and mores of 19th century England” and removing them could foster the sort of robust not-for-profit, charitable foundation-funded accountability journalism has seen in places like the U.S and Germany.

The “Shattered Mirror” report also recommended the creation of a Future of Democracy and Journalism Fund, to first be financed through an initial investment from the federal government, and then ultimately funded through the taxation of digital advertisers based outside of Canada. The money would be allocated to digital innovation initiatives outlined in the report and the fund would be overseen by an independent board.

The report also recommended:

  • providing additional funds to CBC online to eliminate ad sales.
  • supporting Indigenous news organizations and training journalists to increase the amount of reliable Indigenous journalism.
  • creating an institute for the study of journalism and democracy.
  • establishing legal advisory services for small, young and university news outlets to pursue accountability journalism “without fear of reprisal.”
  • overhauling the Copyright Act’s fair-dealing clauses to enable content creators to retain stronger intellectual property rights to their work.

Audio of the CJF panel is available in full.