12 Days of Thinking #12daysofthinking

To take us to 2017, the University of Sheffield has asked academics to reflect on the most pressing issues of our time. Join in the chat on Twitter using the hashtag #12daysofthinking

Day 8: Truth and the Media

The free press

Dr Felicity Matthews, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics:

"A vibrant free press is a critical to a fully-functioning democracy; and many of us rely on the media to provide information provoke debate and expose untruths. However, 2016 has demonstrated that such roles are dispatched with increasing irresponsibility. June’s EU referendum was the most important political decision of a generation. And yet rather than presenting alternative perspectives, media coverage was typically pro-Remain and typified by soundbite over substance. Likewise, the pursuit of personality has meant that political leaders are increasingly portrayed as folk devils and heroes, rather than flesh-and-blood mortals. The effect of this has been to denude political debate of detail and nuance, and contribute to the populist turn sweeping democracies worldwide."

Fake news

Dr Paul Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Social Media & Digital Society, Information School:

"2016 was the year ‘fake news’ outperformed real news on social media, most notably during the US Presidential Election. Companies such as Facebook were accused of not doing enough to prevent the spread of falsehoods. Yet, many citizens contribute to this ‘post-truth’ politics. It was no coincidence that many of the fake news stories that went viral during the US Election were those that appealed to pre-existing prejudices of social media users. The challenge for professional journalists in 2017 is how to counter the spread of disinformation amongst citizens who increasingly distrust traditional news media."

Buy the occasional newspaper

Dr Tony Harcup, Senior Lecturer in Journalism Studies, Department of Journalism Studies:

"‘Fake news’, ‘echo chamber’ and ‘post-truth’ are recurrent phrases as commentators try to make sense of 2016. None are new phenomena, they just seem more powerful (and speedy) in the digital age. Simultaneously, market forces don’t exactly encourage the careful, multi-sourced and evidence-based journalism that might help debunk populist untruths. In this climate we all need to be asking challenging questions, including of ourselves. Also, unfashionable though it may be, perhaps in 2017 we might even buy the occasional newspaper."

Challenges in the post-truth world

Dr Tom Stafford, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science, Department of Psychology:

"In 2017 we need to answer the "post-truth" challenge. The truth hasn't gone away, but the political upsets of 2016 showed that the social life of facts is less and less under establishment control. Authority figures in the government, media, and, yes, Universities, can't just assume their word will be taken without question. We need to up our game, engaging beyond the usual suspects and explaining what we believe and how we came to believe it."

A chance to restore trust in public life

William Horsley, International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM):

“2016 has ended the phoney war in cyberspace. It exposed Facebook as a careless friend of false news, Putin as top puppeteer of untruth, the internet as trolls’ playground, and old media as certain losers in a dystopia where nothing is true. Now at least we know the score. 2017 is a chance to restore trust in public life, but that needs hoax-busting media holding power to account, and a real commitment to editorial integrity in our brave new cyberworld.”