The Future of Journalism

Lamp office in Spring 2022.

Carmen Dillman

Lamp office in Spring 2022.

Chris Koorzen, Lamp writer

Journalism wasn’t my first choice. My adviser recommended it to me after my philosophy class dropped. I was not keen; I’ve always viewed journalists with a healthy dose of skepticism.

It seemed too easy to write dirt or twist the truth and get away with it. Worse, even if they are earnest, bias is part and parcel of every human being, and you can never completely get away from giving your facts some “flavor.” But I wanted to write, and this was a write-heavy course. I reluctantly agreed, figuring this way at least I’ll get an inside view of the filthy industry.

Turns out, being a skeptic and a little cynical are good traits for a journalist. I also enjoyed that class – it was one of the few that had life in it. And although my experience is limited to a semester at college, I have gained deep respect for what journalists do – the real ones anyway. It takes real guts, real courage to speak the truth. And sometimes you must stake your life.


Unfortunately, Journalism’s credibility has suffered a lot these past six years. “Fake news” has become a common slur and trust in the institution has corroded measurably. Modern social technology has also transformed the media landscape. It seemed to me like a dying industry under assault. I figured it won’t be long until the whole mechanism is replaced with machine processes and liberated from human error.

I was dead wrong. During a staff meeting earlier this year, it dawned on me that journalism can never really disappear. Journalism is an extension of our voice. We use it to inform, warn and celebrate. It is integral to our humanity. We use information to organize ourselves, our families and communities at large. The demand for credible information is ever-present. Free markets liberate it; oppressive laws threaten it.

A recent talk hosted at UIS with keynote speakers Jason Piscia and Illinois Times editor Fletcher Farrarat was a good place to start investigating. The keynote speakers were academic Jason Piscia and Illinois Times editor Fletcher Farrar. Piscia outlined the current state of the industry: Local news coverage is faltering and, in some places, disappearing, leading to news “deserts.” Piscia presented research of a direct correlation between local news coverage and local government efficiency – not surprisingly, lower coverage meant worse performance; conversely, better press scrutiny meant better government performance.

Mr. Fletcher’s perspective as an editor was refreshing. On the topic of fake news and how one can identify it, he said: “Honestly, I don’t see how you can not spot fake news. Look, ‘alternative media’ has been around for a long time. They even created the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in the 70’s. To me it is an ‘eye of the beholder’ scenario – ‘alternative’ just means the other newspaper. Our readers keep us honest. So do our advertisers – they read the paper too and will call us out.”

Fletcher quoted Journalist A.J Liebling who said “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one” and added, “My concern is what do we use that freedom for?”

The similar comical quote “Don’t pick a fight with a man that buys ink by the barrel” makes me smile every time I read it, because I think of how Benjamin Franklin used the Pennsylvania Gazette as a targeted tool to trash critics and influence public opinion. He was well aware of the power of words and used it with great efficacy.


But today, everyone owns a printing press and has unlimited ink. In five minutes, you can create an account on social media and potentially reach millions. You just need the courage to publish and the wit for public debate. This is really beautiful – everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard, and it makes it possible to become a niche writer, journalist or educator. But it is a double-edged sword.

In my estimation, the Internet is the single biggest factor of why journalism as a professional body is going through a crisis. The Internet flattened the landscape; no longer are we faced with the costly barrier to market entry of printing and distribution.

Before the Internet, traditional media owned a costly enterprise. Publishers and editors could not recklessly risk their credibility with fake news. The result was media houses that built trust and credibility over a long period of time to the point where the institution itself, and anything connected to news media, garnered automatic respect. But today, because publishing online is virtually free, there is little incentive to protect your investment. What’s worse, because the Internet is inherently anonymous, accountability isn’t much of a concern.

In the years following the expansion of the Internet, it was possible for anyone introducing themselves as a “news outlet” to be granted unearned trust. These online outlets were riding on the coattails of reputable publishing houses. Many took as their aim to agitate, to troll, or just rack up clicks for that delicious advertiser money. This explosion of publishers diluted the credibility and trust of traditional media. Not to mention that this tsunami of information is way beyond the capacity of any human being to sift through.


But it can get worse. It is completely possible to programmatically control thousands of accounts – accounts that to an innocent passerby seem like a real person. And then the puppetmaster can distribute whatever agenda or “fake news” they want to – and it will seem as if thousands of people are rallied behind a cause. And do not underestimate the effect of this – we are socially wired creatures that are built to consider the views of the group. Enough perceived pressure and you might change your mind or at least engage with it.

This leads to another problem. In the race to become the biggest, the tech companies that built these platforms try to gobble up every section of social interaction and as a result, your friendships, your news, your interests, your debates, your personal life – everything – is thrown into the same pot. Is it really so surprising that society seem polarized? If we cannot differentiate between a factual report and a debate or an opinion about the events on which the report was written, how can we ever expect to have common ground and move our society forward? I believe it is essential to make that distinction between a factual report – acknowledging the events – and how we feel about what happened. Debate is a messy thing, but it has its place – it is a boxing ring where bad ideas go to die.


I honestly believe that the only way that Journalism as a professional body can drag itself out of the swamp and re-establish itself as a trusted source by default, is by taking measures ourselves – not leaving it to government – to keep journalists and editors accountable.

Since journalism is concerned with truth first and foremost, I don’t think it is much different from Science in a sense. No sane researcher would publish false results for easy fame; they might get away with it for a while but eventually their reputation gets shot to hell. The stakes are too high because they are kept personally responsible for what they put out. I believe Journalism can learn from academic peer review – to look at it as a model system of verifying facts and enforcing accountability. A valid criticism of this approach is that news must be timely and cannot be delayed to go through such an arduous process. But this is where I think tech has a leg up on print media – once a “questionable” article is published in paper, the damage is done. But it is trivial to keep an article alive on the internet and keep it updated, letting its verifications accumulate over time.

In my research I came across media critic Jack Shafer that made the same argument years ago. In an interview with CNN in 2011, he said: “Well I have political opinions too. What I’m much more interested in is the truth value of the newspaper or show, and that trumps my political views.”

Shafer continued: “What I’m much more interested in is the mechanics and assessing truth value. One thing I’ve always tried to do was fill my story with links. Send people back to primary documents, or government studies, or statistical tables so they can look at the evidence and say ‘Shafer seems to have a good argument here; I could reproduce his argument. Or he is full of beans.’ And I think that’s what the best journalism does; it’s reproducible.”

I agree with Mr. Shafer. Facts are not debatable.


What we need today is a method of distinguishing between the kinds of information we are presented (is it an opinion, or actual event?) and be able to track the record of the people we entrust with uncovering and reporting that information.

There will always be bias, but bias is not the same thing as false or misleading information. People will have their preferences of outlets, editors and writers. But facts don’t change even if their interpretation could. What we as the public and individuals desperately need is tools to cut through the gaslighting. It is too time expensive to verify every story yourself; a limitation I am convinced is considered when publishing dubious information.

This argument extends beyond the practical into a deeper philosophical realm. “Journalism is the first draft of History.” It is thanks to reliable reporters that we have accurate information about the past and can learn from it. This is another thing about writing trash and misleading articles: Do you really believe that bull will stand the test of time?

The tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf demonstrates how a damaged reputation is nearly impossible to recover, and more importantly, why credible journalists are necessary: Sometimes the wolf is real.