On 3 May 2018 and to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, Media Monitoring Africa, South African National Editors Forum, and Institute for Advancement of Journalism hosted a panel that sought to answer  the question “Are the media helping us escape our echo chambers?” This discussion was held in response to the growing trend that researchers have found where the public receive much of their news from social media. Online algorithms determine readers’ preferences and adjust their feeds to create “echo chambers,” in which the readers’ opinions are constantly affirmed. This has been identified as an emerging issue when it comes to readers obtaining a diversity of perspectives and views. To speak on the panel were Dinesh Balliah of Wits University, Sheldon Morais of EWN and community journalist Mduduzi Manana. The panel was facilitated by award-winning journalist Iman Rappetti.

Each of the panelists, as well as Rappetti, gave short inputs about the spread of fake news and the measures that can be taken to prevent it. To start, Balliah was asked to define echo chambers. Her response was, “Whatever message circulates on a social media platform, for example, is resonated and amplified. In that process there’s no change, there’s nothing outside of it that shifts it.” She continued and offered her opinion on the matter, stating, “I don’t see the chamber as a problem. It’s the echo – what message is it that we produce to be circulated within these chambers? And it’s there that we as the media have a role to play. We wouldn’t be here if we thought the echo shared democratic values.”

Morais spoke on the responsibility of journalists in the current age to make a concerted effort to break out of echo chambers and instead to examine stories more deeply. “We’re not dealing with irrefutable facts much of the time. We’re dealing with points of view. You’re dealing with emotions. Before we were journalists, we were people. We come into stories with our own biases. There’s a critical self-awareness to breaking echo chambers. Am I giving that story the same type of coverage that I would if I was pro-the subject matter? What am I feeling as I’m reading that and what does that do as I approach the story?” said Morais.

Rappetti offered her point of view on the challenge of getting readers to care about credible and valuable news. “We have a drive-through mentality,” she said. “That’s dangerous, because what is it going to take to make people realize that there’s far more texture, far more nuance, far more responsibility on them to be a part of what they are receiving?”

Manana finished the panel session with his perspective on the unfortunate decline in the role of community journalism in South Africa, The discussion was then opened to the audience, members of which included journalists and non-journalists, who shared their own thoughts and stories on echo chambers.

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By Grace McDermott