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A Call to Study "News in Use"

It's Thursday, so this must be Cardiff and the Future of Journalism 2017 conference. We start with a double-barrelled keynote involving Silvio Waisbord and Claire Wardle, and Silvio starts us off by considering the role of journalism in a 'post-truth' environment. There's been a great deal of discussion about 'fake news' and 'post-truth' in the aftermath of Brexit and Donald Trump's election, much of it from outside of this discipline – so what can journalism studies add to it?

These are odd times. The criticism of corporate news is now louder on the right than on the left; social constructionists are now louder in their defence of journalistic and scientific facts; journalism is now perhaps better than ever in its fact-checking even as trust is at a low ebb; we are supposedly in an age of post-truth, yet truth-seeking movements are growing in many authoritarian regimes. Some of these debates are already very familiar from the global south, in fact: it's only now that the rest of the world has caught up with it.

The very term 'fake news' is also contested, of course: it has been used to describe satirical news shows like The Daily Show in the past, but now it variously also describes deliberate mis- and disinformation as well as being used as an attack on mainstream media. 'Fake news' is therefore both a phenomenon and a discourse; Donald Trump has tweeted more about 'fake news' than about building his Mexican border wall.

This is linked to the fractious state of journalism itself: journalism is a fragmented institution in a complex multi-platform media environment. As a result, 'post-truth' isn't about the verification or otherwise of individual stories; it is about the collapse of the modern regime of truth, and the return of ideology at the expense of a consensus on what is truth. This is also expressed in the measurable decline of a public trust in science (driven in part by the politicisation of science).

What emerges here is an eistemic democracy – a diverse, horizontal, critical democracy where everything is true and yet nothing is true. Truth-telling requires that public share a norms and judgments in their understanding of reality: norms that enable us to process claims to authority and legitimacy. But in a post-truth environment, these very norms are challenged and undermined: instead, truth is regarded as forever elusive, and any 'truth' can be countered and dismissed by organised merchants of doubt. This is a global phenomenon, but especially prominent in the United States with its long history of particular fondness for unreason, Silvio suggests.

As a result, truth is not a stagnant property inherent to ideas: truth happens to ideas, as through shared agreement amongst people these become truth; the same now applies to the news. 'Fake news', then, is just one part of a number of dystopian phenomena in contemporary public communication, also including abuse and hate speech, for instance; 'fake news' is an expression of a narcissism that claims that 'my' facts are better than someone else's facts.

We therefore need to broaden our analytical approaches and revisit old certainties. We need to study how 'truth' happens to news. We also need to critically assess the faith in the power of facts, in the potential of news literacy, and in the possibility to clean up social media that have been expressed in response to the challenge from 'fake news', and move beyond a trust in mainstream, legacy journalism to solve what ails us.

We need to connect the study of journalism and news to broader questions in public communication, and from this perspective reform our critiques of mainstream journalism, revisit the normative premises that this critique proceeds from, and revisit the recommendations for journalism that emerge from these critiques. Established commonplace solutions may no longer be sufficient and appropriate in the current context.

We need to address, in summary, the question of truth in and outside of journalism: we need to study how news is read and processed by communities of belief – that is, we need to study 'news in use', rather than as an abstract object isolated from its conditions of production and use. This also means studying how the news connects and enables the interaction between people.