The New Vic Theater was almost at capacity when Christina Bellantoni gave a free talk about “Figuring Out What’s Real in an Era of Fake News: Why Journalism Matters Now More Than Ever” on Sunday afternoon. Sponsored by UCSB’s Walter H. Capps Center, the assistant managing editor of politics at the Los Angeles Times spoke about her experience in journalism, mainly covering politics, in her current position and as a reporter in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade.
Bellantoni opened by admitting she had predicted Hillary Clinton would win, prompting her to wonder how she and so many of her colleagues could have been wrong. After stating that “four years under Trump’s administration would be better for journalism,” she noted that since President Trump’s election, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers have seen unprecedented jumps in the number of subscribers, both online and in print. She mentioned that despite this being good news for the industry that people seem to be taking an interest, ethical journalism is more important now than ever.
Bellantoni discussed the financial struggles that newsrooms have faced while trying to compete and adapt to the age of the Internet, and they will now be facing the added pressure of President Trump’s attacks on the media.
Her take on why Trump won — by defying everything candidates normally did and by changing the type of voter who would vote Republican — was that “President Trump is perhaps the biggest surprise in my 20-plus years of journalism.” She also believed it was important for people to understand what happens in Washington and how powerful their vote is: “Writing about politics matters … we want people to understand what their government is doing.” Bellantoni equated a strong democracy to a free press.
When addressing the topic of fake news, she stated that people resonated with this because there has been an assumption that the press is biased toward liberalism. She stressed the importance of balance and transparency, and she addressed the bias of social networks, staying that “alternative facts are spread by both sides.”
Bellantoni mentioned common misconceptions the public has about journalists and the need for clarification. From explaining how public endorsements of candidates work, to what political reporters are allowed to disclose of their own beliefs, Bellantoni stated that it is essential for reporters to show what they know, not what they think, in order to restore trust with the public.
Bellantoni explained that fake news sites were the ones profiting off of Internet traffic, saying, “Those are the ones with the belly fat ads on them.” She went on to express the value in a partisan media that challenges each other, which can foster a closer scrutiny on factual reporting instead of a focus on sensational headlines.
Bellantoni summed up the talk, saying she was an optimist: “If you’re paying attention, you can create change. You can also demand a better media.”
In a question and answer forum, an exchange on personal bias and the effects of sensationalism led to Trump’s tweeting and whether or not to cover it. Bellantoni responded by reminding the audience that outlets also covered Obama’s tweets, but the content may not have been memorable. Ultimately, she said, the best way to combat fake news and our own biases is to support the outlets that are doing equal, factual reporting.