LEWISTON — A trio of journalists on Monday blamed the decline of mainstream media on one basic factor: People currently want their news to back up their beliefs and opinions, not present facts that could potentially change them.

“It’s the echo chamber. It’s the cocoon,” said Thomas Fiedler about the conservative Fox News. “You know if you go there, you will hear what you actually want to believe.”

The three journalists shared their thoughts on journalism as part of “The Role of Journalism in a Democracy,” the last in this season’s Civic Forum series at Bates College. The panelists were Rex Rhoades, executive editor of the Sun Journal,  Justin Ellis, former writer and multi-media producer for the Portland Press Herald and current staff member at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, and Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and former executive editor of The Miami Herald.

Over 30 community members and Bates students attended the talk.

For more than two hours, the trio discussed journalism’s history, its place in a democratic society and its possible future. Rhoades, who has been in journalism for 35 years, said he saw two major threats to journalism’s future: the Internet, which has taken both advertisers and readers away from newspapers, and the decline of the fact, which has allowed popular TV personalities — both conservative and liberal — to share their opinions without facts to back them up.   

“Usually loud opinions. And the louder the better,” Rhoades said.

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Fiedler agreed that the Internet was changing mainstream media. For the first time in history, he said, people can get information — fast — without a gatekeeper for that information. One person’s Twitter message can ultimately reach as many or more than a newspaper edition. 

“What we are seeing doesn’t really have a parallel, a parallel in mass communication,” he said. “Anybody can be the promulgator or information.”

While that offers a lot of information, he said, it also offers misinformation. It may take years to understand, he said, “What exactly is this doing to us?”

Although Rhoades and Fiedler had some concerns about the Internet’s affect on mainstream media, Ellis was more likely to embrace it. He touted the use of Twitter and sites that posted government documents. Technology, he said, provides tools.

“I think it’s incredibly valuable,” Ellis said.

But like Rhoades and Fiedler, he talked about the trend toward commentators who offer only opinion but who are viewed by the public as journalists. Historically, he said, journalists offered a “view from nowhere,” a fact-based, impartial look at what’s going on. 

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Outlets like Fox News, he said, “Give you a view from somewhere.”

That loss of impartiality, the panelists said, threatens journalism’s important role in democracy.

“To me it’s kind of a scary thing,” Rhoades said.

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