For journalists, no substitute for ‘getting out there,’ columnist says

The proliferation of online news and information, much of it of dubious quality, is creating challenges for journalists and audiences alike, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen told students and faculty today at an Indiana University Media School symposium.

“There is a tremendous cacophony out there,” Cohen said. “American citizens need to be educated in how to sift, how to distinguish real journalism from some kid in Macedonia writing a story.”

Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen

The media landscape seems topsy-turvy, he said, with the president of the United States attacking the credibility of established news media on a daily basis and “fake news” circling the globe at the speed of data thanks to gullible readers sharing on social media.

“Once it’s out there, debunking it doesn’t have much effect,” he said. “Velocity trumps veracity. Speed trumps truth.”

Cohen, the inaugural Indiana University Poynter Chair, joined Indiana Daily Student editor-in-chief Hannah Alani and Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations managing editor Sarah Neal-Estes for a mid-day discussion titled with a question: “Sinking in a Swamp of News, Lies and Social Media?”

The panelists said advances in digital and online media have given newspapers and broadcast stations new ways of sharing news, engaging with audiences and finding sources and story ideas. Audiences increasingly expect to get their news online, not via newspapers or the evening newscast, they agreed.

At the New York Times, Cohen said, reporters and columnists are expected to interact with readers on Twitter and other social media platforms at the same time they cover their beats, cultivate sources and report and write in-depth stories.

“The thinking is 100 percent about the digital future,” he said. “We are totally driven by being a digital subscription business.”

But Cohen worried that journalists who are constantly online won’t develop the deep knowledge and face-to-face engagement with sources that the craft requires. Great reporting, he said, takes “immersion in place.” There is a tension, he said, between technological connection and journalism’s responsibility to bear witness to important events.

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” he said, “but there is no substitute for getting out there. If you want to understand something, go there.”

Cohen will speak tonight at 6:30 at an IU Office of the Provost Hot Topics program on “Fake or Fact? The Search for Real News in 2017.” Other panelists will include Filippo Menczer, co-director of the IU fake news tracking tool Hoaxy, and Caryn Baird, a news researcher with the Tampa Bay Times and PolitiFact.

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