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How do I consume news ethically? University of Utah asks experts

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A public debate was held at the University of Utah Wednesday, with experts weighing in on understanding the ethics of journalism and media.

The university has been hosting public debates covering influential topics since the 1890s. This year, the event was titled, "Reporting Objectivity in a Post-Truth Era? A Debate and Discussion About Journalistic Ethics, National Security, and Public Deliberation." The topic focused on whether the traditional journalistic norms of objectivity ought to give way to more opinionated journalism.

The U.'s John R. Park Debate Society co-hosted the debate with the university's Communication Institute.

However, the event looked a little different than in past years. Held online, without an audience, student debaters sat in pairs and asked each other questions.

After the 40-minute debate, coach and professor Jason Jordan asked experts in communication law, journalism and national security policy for their thoughts on the modern state of global journalism. Here are some key takeaways:

How should the government combat disinformation?

"We need to think about what adjustments to our legal structures do and do not apply to the media landscape," said professor Ronnell Anderson Jones, who is an endowed chair at the U.'s S.J. Quinney College of Law and an Affiliated Fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project.

Anderson Jones stressed the importance of teaching information literacy and about consuming information with which we disagree. Noting how changes to libel law have the potential to harm public speech, she concluded, "Disinformation has to be tackled in its own space."

Former Salt Lake Tribune national security journalist and Utah State University journalism professor Matthew LaPlante argued that disinformation cannot be controlled by governments at all.

"Disinformation, when tackled by governments, confirms the narrative," he said, noting how conspiracy theorists often take the denial of governments as a badge of honor. Instead, he argued, "libraries, academic centers and media entities" need to combat disinformation.

Do our laws do enough to protect journalists?

"It used to be, the reality was, you pulled out your press badge and the police would leave you alone," noted professor Kim Zarkin, chairman of Westminster's communication program. She said that's changed in the last 30 years as police have started arresting journalists at protests.

However, legislation to protect journalists is often complicated, Zarkin said, because, "do you want the government to define what a journalist is?"

Anderson Jones agreed, noting that who can access many places, such as jails, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and even the White House press room, can be nebulous. "We need to get better at identifying those who are acting as proxy for the rest of us and performing that function," when it comes to law, Anderson Jones said.

Noting his years spent covering military operations in Kuwait, Iraq and Germany, LaPlante discussed how the global norm of respect for journalists enabled him to do his job, "That keeps me safe. That helps protect me. … That is not a norm I want to give up."

LaPlante also said there wasn't a substantial difference between him writing for a newspaper and another person writing for a personal blog. "Who gets to decide what a journalist is?" he asked. "We are having a shift on who conducts journalism."

He concluded, asking, "Do journalists thrive for impartiality? Who gets to decide what impartiality actually means?"

What can consumers of news do to protect journalists facing arrest or detainment on political grounds?

"You cannot have a strong, powerful, healthy democracy with free-flowing discourse without protection for the press function," said Anderson Jones. She stressed the importance of viewing journalism as a core of democracy, pointing out a global shift toward the punishment of journalists. "As the United States' press freedom index plummets, you can see the nations that have based their press freedoms on ours plummeting," she said.

"Speaking truth to power has never been a safe occupation," LaPlante said. Instead, he argued that the U.S. has a long history of protection of the press, referencing the Zenger trial.

LaPlante explained that prior to the Revolutionary War, a jury decided to acquit a journalist for committing libel against the British-appointed governor of New York. "People can participate in these acts," he said. "The problem is that we don't have enough people doing the act, because they cannot arrest everyone."

"If you want to support journalism, someone has to pay the bill, and it needs to be (the public)," Zarkin said. "Subscribe to the Washington Post. Subscribe to the New York Times. Subscribe to ProPublica."

How can someone make ethical, reliable choices about what media to consume?

"There is a difference between opinion and journalism. We label everything 'the media,'" Zarkin said, stressing the need for more nuance. "Seek out information that is verified. Seek out long-form information."

"Seek a mentality of 'I don't know about this, let me learn' instead of who makes us feel good," she said.

"I think it's wise for people to think of their role as distributors of news," added Anderson Jones. She argued that before reposting, sharing or liking news on social media, it is the consumer's job to read that news and ask why the algorithm gave them that content.

"Pause before sharing," she warned.

How do I talk about the news with family I disagree with politically?

"Those conversations have become difficult in recent years," because everyone operates on a different set of information, said LaPlante.

"Choose a source of information that you can both agree on," he suggested, citing how he and his uncle disagree politically, but, "we can agree that the Wall Street Journal is a place we can both go for information with some degree of accuracy."

"We can start at a place where we both have a singular source of information — a shared currency — and we can have conservations that are civil," LaPlante said.

Correction: In an earlier version, LaPlante's name was incorrectly spelled LePlant.

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