Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon highlighted the misuse of the phrase “fake news” and provided words of encouragement about surpassing the negativity in journalism to an audience of more than 30 people at Wallis Annenberg Hall Monday.
CPJ, a nonprofit organization that advocates for freedom of the press, ensures journalists worldwide feel safe doing their job. Since 1992, the organization has collected data about the number of journalists imprisoned and killed globally.
Recently, there has been an increase in the number of journalists jailed around the world as leaders use the term “fake news” to undermine their work. Simon referenced CCTV by the Chinese government and various state-funded media outlets has been used to influence the public.
“We’re seeing leaders around the world adopt this rhetoric to justify repressing the media,” Simon said. “We’re seeing fake news laws promulgated around the world, basically criminalizing certain kinds of reporting. What’s completely missing is U.S. engagement.”
The U.S. has not presented the field of journalism in a positive light. Simon referred to President Donald Trump’s recent statement questioning the need for NPR after radio host Mary Louise Kelly reported being disrespected by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after an interview. Simon called the situation “fundamentally damaging” to the First Amendment because President Trump fails to represent the values of America as the chief diplomat.
He also mentioned the Facebook data privacy scandal in which Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg answered questions about the social media platform’s promulgation of Russian-influenced ads in the 2016 election. Simon uses this scandal as an example to reiterate how influential corporations fail to address the challenges faced by journalists.
“[Facebook’s change was] an ass-covering strategy,” Simon said. “It’s a way for them to step back a little bit because of something that was capable of political liability for them. There’s been some efforts to address this but no commitment from leadership.”
In response to an audience question, Simon gave recommendations on handling “fake news.” He advised audience members to use the term only in the context of recent government justification for threats against journalists. Simon also said that frequent use of this term only led to its exploitation.
“First thing I’d recommend is don’t use the term ,” Simon said. “It’s meaningless.”
He also discussed the influence of technology in daily life and the way these technological advancements are becoming a threat to privacy. Simon said that it seems impossible to verify the safety behind our means of communication.
Judy Muller, an ABC News correspondent and professor emeritus, asked if the CPJ had plans to educate the public on media literacy due to the gross misrepresentation of journalists.
Simon said CPJ recognizes that the public struggles with media literacy but said the committee sees a greater need to allocate its resources to their expertise.
Alyssa Patterson, a graduate student studying global communication who attended the event, said she appreciated the global perspective it provided. Patterson found the conversation to be eye opening because she saw how other governments were abusing journalism and saw that the situation was “not just a Trump disease.”
Simon said the number of journalists killed last year was the lowest since 1992. He also mentioned a collaboration with USC to host a press freedom film festival, which would feature panels, discussions and screenings to recognize efforts toward press freedom.
“The thing that inspires me, makes me do this job, is how difficult and dangerous journalism is, and yet there is so much incredible journalism in this country, around the world,” Simon said.