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ASU Cronkite School hosts 1st Media Summit of the Americas

Facebook whistleblower talks about hate speech at ASU journalism conference.
June 9, 2022

Journalists, officials tackle effects of disinformation on society

The new ASU California Center hosted the first Media Summit of the Americas on Tuesday, a global journalism conference that drew a top government official and a major whistleblower, as well as Latin American journalists who work under threat from their own governments.

The new California Center is a perfect place for a journalism conference because it’s in the Herald Examiner Building, which used to house one of the top newspapers in the country, said Battinto Batts Jr., the dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Cronkite School hosted the conference in partnership with the Equis Institute, a hub for leaders in the Latino community working to increase civic participation in American democracy.

“Where we are gathering is a former press room for the Herald Examiner,” Batts said, asking the crowd to visualize the presses running during the newspaper’s heyday. The building sat vacant after the Herald Examiner went out of business in 1989, and ASU spent four years renovating the structure in downtown Los Angeles.

The ASU California Center houses a bureau of Cronkite News, run by student journalists, Batts said.

“We are leaders in the fight against mis- and disinformation,” he said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to be the platform to discuss this global threat.

“Although our craft has existed since ancient Roman times, journalists still face violence, censorship and intimidation today.”

RELATED: Secretary of state emphasizes value of a free press at ASU-hosted event

Tuesday’s Media Summit of the Americas was part of the weeklong Summit of the Americas event, which was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Roberta Braga is the director for counter-disinformation strategies at Equis. She said that the conference was intended to discuss the broader ecosystem of disinformation.

“If we’re all living in an era where we can’t even agree on what truth is and we’re all consuming information in silos, then we’re in a moment of time — and our research has found this — where we’re too unsure to believe or too exhausted to get engaged with information, and both of those things are problematic for democracy,” she said.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was one of the speakers at the Media Summit of the Americas, hosted by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Tuesday at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

One of the conference speakers was whistleblower Frances Haugen, a data engineer at Facebook who released internal documents that she said showed how the social media giant’s algorithms prioritized hyperpartisan content and hate speech.

Haugen said that people think of Facebook as a way to connect with friends and family.

“The reality is that Facebook hasn’t been that since like 2008,” she said. “Over that period of time, Facebook has pushed us into more and more content that we never asked for.

“Facebook had to make more money every single quarter. I always like to joke that the problem with Facebook is that your family and friends let Facebook down.”

In the early years, Facebook’s goal was to increase time spent on the site. But the company realized that higher engagement created more content, and emotional content drives more engagement.

“The shortest path to a click is anger,” she said. “The angrier the comment thread, the more it gets reshared.”

Algorithms don’t show everyone the same content, she said.

“Eighty percent of the COVID disinformation in the United States only went to about 4% of the population.

“For the part of the population in that 4%, post after post after post was ‘Your children are in danger.’ And it’s a rational response if all you’re seeing is ‘Your child is in danger,’ wouldn’t you show up at a school board meeting and threaten a teacher if that’s all you saw?”

This is critical because in some parts of the world, Facebook is more than social media — it’s actually the internet. In some countries, Facebook subsidizes people’s data when they use the platform, while they must pay for the data if they visit sites on the open internet.

“They did that for enough people that it became disadvantageous for businesses to have their own websites, for newspapers to have their own websites,” she said.

Haugen said that after the initial frenzy of attention over Facebook’s algorithms, it seems that nothing has changed.

“But we’ve already seen some amazing steps forward,” she said, noting a children’s privacy bill in the Senate that has bipartisan support. “I think there will probably be a web-free, Facebook-like site that will come along that will be owned by its users,” she said.

While Haugen’s revelations were horrifying, she remains optimistic.

“Every single time we invented a new kind of media, it’s been super disruptive,” she said.

The printing press unleashed the first era of disinformation.

“You had people printing pamphlets on how your neighbors were witches,” she said.

“Until we wrestle with it and until we push for something that works, it will feel chaotic. But we’ve done it before and we can do it again.”

WATCH: What it was like to be part of the summit

The Media Summit of the Americas featured several other sessions, in both Spanish and English:

  • A panel discussion with independent journalists from Colombia, El Salvador and Venezuela.
  • A talk by Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who discussed the role of governments in supporting media integrity.
  • Breakout sessions on censorship, fact checking, data privacy and media literacy training.

The Media Summit of the Americas also hosted a talk by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who described efforts by the U.S. government to support independent journalism in the Americas.

Blinken participated in a Q&A with two current students and one graduate of the Cronkite School. He said he was inspired by them.

“I am so glad that you’re doing this, as I’m dead-serious about the proposition that this lies at the heart of our democracies. And as goes journalism, as goes a free media, so go our democracies,” he said.

Top photo: Battinto Batts, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said on Tuesday that the ASU California Center was the perfect place to host a journalism conference because it's the former home of the Herald Examiner newspaper. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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US secretary of state emphasizes value of a free press at ASU-hosted event

U.S. secretary of State tells ASU crowd that journalism is vital to democracy.
Cronkite School reporters interview Blinken about the challenges media face.
June 9, 2022

Blinken spoke to journalists as part of the Media Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told an Arizona State University audience that a strong press is the cornerstone of democracy and that the U.S. is working to ease the threats faced by journalists around the world.

Blinken spoke Tuesday at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication hosted the first Media Summit of the Americas, in partnership with the Equis Institute. Blinken’s talk capped the daylong event attended by dozens of journalists from Latin America, which was devoted to fighting disinformation. The Media Summit was part of the weeklong Summit of the Americas hosted by the Department of State.

“In every country in the hemisphere, for every goal that we want to achieve, for every problem affecting the lives of our people, a free, independent press is essential,” Blinken said.

“And at its core is the idea that accurate information is a public good — one that helps people understand the events and forces shaping their lives; spotlights problems and solutions that they otherwise might not see; and, fundamentally, empowers citizens to engage meaningfully in their communities, their countries, and the world.

“In democracies, we often look to the media to provide this public good.”

RELATED: Cronkite School hosts 1st Media Summit of the Americas

Blinken discussed three major threats facing journalists now and how the U.S. is addressing them.

The first challenge is disinformation.

“We’ve seen how these falsehoods can polarize communities, poison the public square, undermine people’s trust in health systems, government institutions, in democracy itself,” he said.

Blinken said the U.S. is launching the Digital Communication Network of the Americas. The network was created in 2015 in Africa and Europe as a way for journalists, educators, communicators, media professionals and public officials to combat disinformation and propaganda.

During the pandemic, the network helped journalists, data scientists and public health officials share strategies on how to counter myths on social media that were designed to stoke doubt about vaccines and — ultimately — erode trust in democracy.

The second challenge is the threats, harassment and violence faced by many journalists around the world.

“Even as we take steps to counter disinformation, we have to always guard against measures that give governments overly broad powers to criminalize, to censor or otherwise quash freedom of expression, as we’ve seen in the rash of so-called ‘fake news’ laws passed by governments, some of which have been abused to harass or lock up journalists whose critical reporting the governments didn’t like.

“You all know this because many of you are living it,” he told the audience.

Blinken said that least 17 journalists have been killed in the Western Hemisphere this year.

“No region in the world is more dangerous for journalists,” he said.

“In Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the simple act of carrying out investigative journalism is a crime.”

The U.S. is working to strengthen the rule of law by training judges and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute such attacks, he said.

In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development will spend $9 million to support a global Defamation Defense Fund for Journalists, which will offer liability coverage for journalists and news organizations targeted with litigation. 

The third challenge is the business model of journalism.

“Put simply, we will not have a vibrant, independent press if more and more outlets are shutting down because they can’t find a viable business model,” he said.

The U.S. is providing direct financial assistance to some at-risk publications and will give $30 million to the International Fund for Public Interest Media.

Video by Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Blinken was interrupted twice by shouting protesters, one of whom criticized the invitation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry of Haiti to the Summit of the Americas and one who criticized the U.S. government’s response to the murders of journalists in Saudi Arabia and Palestine.

Blinken responded to both that the U.S. is supporting independent investigations, including into the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Palestine.

“I deplore the loss of Shireen,” Blinken said. “She was a remarkable journalist and an American citizen.”

After his remarks, Blinken participated in a Q&A session with two students and one alumna from the Cronkite School at ASU.

He asked the young women if they worried about their safety while doing their jobs.

Madison Thomas, a senior at the Cronkite School, said that it’s a concern.

“Even here in the U.S., when there have been different protests in the last several years, you see videos surface of stuff that happens to journalists,” she said.

“So me seeing that as someone who’s entering this career field, that’s something that scares me. You can go out and cover something, emotions are high and something can happen here or abroad.”

Thomas said she knows the industry has shifted from years ago, when her grandfather would read the print newspaper every day. He told her how everyone trusted Walter Cronkite.

“Now I feel like we’ve lost so much trust as journalists,” she said. “In the past few years, people in power say things about journalists and others believe it. How can we rebuild that trust?”

Blinken said that years ago, the news was curated by a small group of gatekeepers at the television networks and newspapers, and Walter Cronkite was one of them.

“In many ways, there was an expectation that the democratization of information we’ve seen over the last 25 years would be a good thing,” he said.

“We’ve lost those trusted media curators. Now everyone is a publisher.

“As a result, we have an incredible ecosystem of information that many people, including myself, have a hard time deciphering.”

Andrea Villalobos, a senior at the Cronkite School, asked Blinken how he deals with the information overload.

“How do you personally sift through your social media feed and everything? Sometimes your own face pops up on there,” she said.

Blinken said that years ago, there was a time lag between when the news appeared and when the public reacted.

“Now it’s instantaneous. That puts pressure on the government to react responsibly and do something immediately,” he said.

Villalobos asked Blinken about “clickbait” culture.

“There’s so many things that can go wrong when there is more drive for engagement in the headline rather than actual content in that headline,” she said.

Blinken said that’s why supporting news organizations financially is important.

“One of the reasons we’re trying to look for ways to build support for independent media is to help take some of that pressure off, and at least create a space where journalism is not motivated by that necessity,” he said.

Blinken told them that they, as young journalists, face the burden of these challenges.

“Here’s the hard truth. We’re looking to you and your generation for the answers. You’re the ones who need to figure that out,” he said.

Marcella Baietto graduated from the Cronkite School in 2020 and works as a weekend anchor and reporter at a TV station in Illinois.

“I started J-schooljournalism school in 2016, the year we saw a huge shift in trusting the media. This is all I’ve ever known,” she said.

“I’ve only known that people don’t like and don’t trust us,” she told Blinken. “I think if I’ve been able to navigate how to ethically and successfully report during this tough time, I’m ready for whatever is ahead.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Andrea Villalobos, a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, before participating in an interview with her and Madison Thomas (center), also a senior at the Cronkite School. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

The three women told ASU News that they had little time to prepare for the event with Blinken. They knew only that they would be interviewing a top government official.

“I didn’t know who I was interviewing until a couple of days before, for security reasons,” Villalobos said. 

“We decided together, along with his staff, what topics would pertain to the summit as well as what we were really interested in talking to him about.

“We brainstormed together. Even last night, we scrapped everything we had written before and just wrote questions 10 minutes before in a room and put them on notecards, and that’s what we ended up going with.”

Baietto watched previous interviews with Blinken to prepare for the interview, which she said went by quickly.

“It was very (off) the cuff and you try to prepare so much for it, and once you get there in person, there are follow-up questions and people in the audience who want to ask questions as well and you just have to go with the flow,” she said.

Thomas watched Blinken’s appearances on late-night talk shows to prepare.

“I found out he likes to play guitar, but he’s not that great at it,” she said. “I also listened to podcasts so I had as much knowledge as I could.”

Villalobos said that her studies at Cronkite have prepared her to face the tough world of journalism.

“When you’re in Cronkite News, you’re already telling such important stories,” said Villalobos, who interviewed people at the U.S.-Mexico border as a student reporter.

“And it’s just amazing to go out into the real world and have all of these stories under your belt and meet such amazing people.”

Top image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a crowd at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles. After the event, he participated in an interview with Marcella Baietto (far left) who graduated from ASU's Cronkite School in 2020, and current Cronkite students Madison Thomas (center) and Andrea Villalobos. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News