Finding new paths to discover and tell the truth

Professors and journalists have always shared a central mission – discover and disseminate the truth. This shared mission has often brought academics and the media together, aiding each other in the work of educating the public.

Unfortunately, these groups also share the darker side of public attention – being openly denounced by critics. Verbal attacks on professors and the press are often character-based, painting them as elites, socialists, even “spies”, with a secret agenda to undermine the traditions of society.

In recent years, slanderous campaigns have become common in Western democracies like the United States, even though the principles of a free press and free speech are encoded in the constitution.

This trend to vilify academics and journalists raises serious questions about how universities are able to contribute to the public good, especially at a time when experts are being discredited and accused by influential leaders of spreading “fake news”.

The recent Worldviews Conference, hosted at the University of Toronto in Canada, brought together leading professors and journalists to reflect on these questions and to consider “the future of higher education and media in the ‘post-truth’ world”.

The three-day event was organised by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and sponsored by University World News, among others.

A different kind of conference

For those of us who regularly attend academic forums, this conference was a welcome change. Rather than a panel of researchers presenting their own focused topic, the Worldviews Conference styled itself in the manner of a talk-show.

Leading professors and journalists sat in armchairs, often moderated by a media personality who invited them to have an informed conversation with the audience.

Topics included truth and reconciliation in the Middle East, responding to ‘illiberal democracies’, the power of corporations and engaging with new media. Speakers were diverse in every sense of the word – from their age, ethnicity and gender to the region of the world in which they work.

Two of the most quoted speakers on the conference Twitter feed were the inspiring journalists Maria Ressa and Nermeen Shaikh. These impressive women were the keynote conversation on the morning of Friday 14 June.

Ressa was the former CNN bureau chief in the Philippines and is the current CEO of, an independent news outlet that is under constant attack from Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte. Shaikh is the broadcast news producer and weekly co-host at Democracy Now! – an independent news programme.

From truth tellers to enemies of the state

Ressa and Shaikh spent an intense hour and a quarter discussing how perceptions of journalists have changed starkly. Previously they were seen as “distinguished truth tellers” and now they are being labelled as enemies of the state.

Ressa described how in the Philippines, before 2016, opinion polls showed that the public had a high respect for journalists. In the past three years, as President Duterte has repeatedly criticised the media, those numbers have dropped significantly.

Ressa compared Duterte and United States President Donald Trump in their three-step approach to denouncing journalists: a) simplify the situation, b) develop a caricature of the enemy (journalists) and c) repeat, repeat, repeat.

She argued that the threat to journalists is a threat to democracy because of the “intimate connection between journalism and democracy”. People cannot know who and what to vote for if they have not had transparent information via independent media.

Shaikh furthered the discussion by calling for more independent media outlets to step outside ‘mainstream’ media, which has traditionally had blindspots. She spoke of the war in Yemen, a consequence of Saudi involvement, which was not being covered by the mainstream media. Instead, the mainstream media was acclaiming the Saudi crown prince on his diplomatic visit to the US.

Ressa confirmed this position, describing how the long-time news outlets in the USA and United Kingdom often operate on an ad-based funding mechanism that requires them to communicate to the majority and select news that borders on entertainment. Both speakers called for more independent news outlets where the “risk is not dictated by corporate advertisers”.

The public good of higher education

University professors face similar challenges to those discussed by Ressa and Shaikh. Professors have been labelled by governments, and even other professors, as liberal elites. In terms of research, professors feel pressure to develop marketable research proposals to receive money from their funders. And for precarious, non-full-time academics, there is little protection or academic freedom, which limits the risks they can take in their research.

In Canada, these trends are particularly disturbing if we consider the importance of university professors for the public good. For example, universities produce upwards of 35% of research and development in Canada.

Whether in social sciences or medical innovations, Canadians need what the research professors produce. There are few other spaces in society where long-term, in-depth research is being done to help us understand ourselves and the world around us.

In terms of education, just as journalism is intimately linked to democracy, so too is the modern university closely linked to the development of informed citizens. These unfounded attacks that dismiss professors as socialist elites threaten the production of knowledge and dissemination of research that keeps our students informed.

Although these challenges are threatening, professors can learn from their colleagues in journalism to begin to work “outside the frame”, as Shaikh describes it. Indeed, for many journalists and academics who do not have full-time employment and the protection of an institution, this is the only option.

Instead of safe, stable jobs with large networks, journalists are forging ahead and expanding their reach through independent websites and social media. For professors, new websites like The Conversation are offering a venue to share their research outside traditional journals or books.

Yet if our colleagues in journalism are the example, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Creative new ways of mobilising knowledge are being developed almost daily and academics need to jump on board if we are to regain our position as distinguished truth tellers.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.