The age of misinformation: Who do you trust?

A lecture by Prof Mary Kay Blakely

On an average day, one can spend between 3.6 – 4.7 hours engaged on various social media platforms, consuming endless amounts of information fed neatly into an easy flowing stream for our convenience. Our enabling devices – tablets, smartphones and laptop computers – remove the need, for most, to purchase a newspaper or visit the local library for their daily literary dose. A quick fix is the order of the day, and in the world of instant gratification and instant messaging, ‘instant knowledge’ is supplied by Wikipedia and Google platforms and have – as collateral damage – dislodged arduous research, instantly upgrading conversations from ignorant to informed – or does it?

It is not often we stop to consider who lies behind the social media curtain pulling the strings that populate our news feed. How do we verify its content? How do we know we can trust it? Prof Mary Kay Blakely from the Missouri School of Journalism (Columbia, USA) invites us to intellectually and intuitively query this complexity in her public lecture entitled ‘The Age of Misinformation: Who Do You Trust?’ hosted at the University of the Free State.

As a published and internationally renowned journalist and writer1 Prof Blakely guides us through her personal literary journey and shares her insights on interacting with media and information as a producer of content and as a reader – the consumer of media content. She elegantly emphasises the growing importance of being able to critically assess what you read, and approaching it from different vantage points for better understanding. She says, “It is not just about covering both sides of the story. Often, there are far more sides to a story than just two, probably even five.”

The emergence of the citizen-journalist has democratised the journalism space. Where bloggers are held at the same status as the print media columnist; and the average tweeter is cited as a critical source of journalism and is interchangeable as with the eye-witness reporter; Prof Blakely points out that traditional media houses will have to work much harder in staying a relevant and credible and reliable source of news and information amidst the media revolution. In order to (re)gain this gravitas the process of vetting sources must retain its rigour, integrity, truthfulness, fairness and objectivity and it is therefore the obligation of the media to be fair, balanced, and truthful while recognising their own biases. 

She did however concede to the reality that objectivity in itself is extremely difficult. True objectivity, which means keeping yourself completely out of the story you cover, is virtually impossible. Prof Blakely shares her experiences about media houses in the USA where Objectivity is further compromised by profit-making motives and negative corporate influences that aim to (mis)shape public opinion via the media.

The session culminated into a panel discussion session, where Zubeida Jaffer and Willemien Marais joined Prof Blakely in further unpacking the sophisticated issues surrounding ethics, public misinformation & context and the new age journalist. The panel also engaged in a lively debate wi­th the audience who posed penetrating questions with the hopes of eliciting sagely advice from the esteemed panel. Most were young budding writers and journalists that sought guidance on how to navigate themselves in the ever-changing field of carrier- journalism and how to set-themselves apart as distinguished journalists.