Reporting, with optimism, in the age of alternative facts

To cap off an optimist keynote address for the conference Reporting in the Age of Alternative Facts, Joe Sexton danced to the tune of audience applause. His lighthearted nature matched his ultimate opinion on the topic of the day: he’s optimistic about the future of journalism.

“There are three great human desires: the desire for food, the desire for sex and the desire to hear stories,” Sexton said. This statement, attributed to a former colleague, inspires his faith that people will always want the facts that journalists provide.

The conference, hosted by the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder on Saturday, aimed to address the role of journalism in an age of growing disinformation and misinformation. Sexton, senior editor of ProPublica and former reporter and editor for the New York Times, remains positive that good journalism can combat these alarming trends.

Throughout his address, Sexton referenced a poem by Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, titled The Singer’s House. After failing out of CU and eventually making his way to Ireland, Sexton had heard the poet read some of his work at a bar in Dublin – an experience that has resonated with him to this day.

“Journalism can keep singing its song,” Sexton said, alluding to a line in the poem.

Sexton added that journalists must be steadfast in their search for the truth, and stay humble enough to admit when they are wrong if they are to combat what has become known as fake news.

Sexton explained that journalists should not promise the truth, but facts and opinions based on truth. Above all they need to continue to be transparent in their work, even when they make mistakes, in order to avoid the inaccurate equivocation between mistakes and fake news. “The mission collapses all together if you don’t own your mistakes,” he said.

After delivering his address, Sexton answered questions from Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor in the CMCI, and from the audience. He clarified that President Trump, while guilty of using the term fake news to write off accurate information he does not agree with, does not hate the press.

“He calls the Times a failing newspaper but goes to bed at night hoping to wake up to a positive story about him,” Sexton said.

This “odd search for love” from the press is far different than past relationships between the media and the president. As Sexton pointed out, in some ways the press has more access to Trump than they did to his predecessors, including Barak Obama.

However, Sexton believes that journalists face substantial challenges under the new administration, partly due to the changing dynamic of their relationship. They cannot “walk away from all the other good work [they] had already identified as being important, and essential, and outrageous” to cover everything Trump tweets, he said. To do so would be to sacrifice journalism to follow “the tornado of the White House.”

Ultimately, Sexton said, reporting in the age of fake news requires adhering to the traditional practices that make for good journalism, while also facing the unknown future of news, and fake news, with hope.

Sexton concluded his keynote address by again referencing the Heaney poem, which had been so formidable in his youth, to inspire optimism that good journalism will always hold a place in our society.

“Raise it again man,” quoted Sexton, “we still believe what we hear.”

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Emily McPeak at and on Twitter @emily_mcpeak.

Emily McPeak

Emily McPeak is an undergraduate student who writes about society and politics. She is studying journalism and political science.

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