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Fake News Takes the Stage at the Inaugural McGowan Forum on Ethics in Leadership

How does misinformation affect democracy, especially in the phenomenon of “fake news”? Do journalists have an ethical responsibility to report the truth? What is “fake news,” anyway?

These and other questions dealing with ethics in journalism formed the backbone of the inaugural McGowan Forum on Ethics in Leadership held on a warm spring evening in March inside the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives Museum, Washington, D.C.

With a nearly full-house audience in attendance, four prominent panelists gathered on the stage, including Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard; Amy Hollyfield of The Tampa Bay Times; Nicholas Lemann, writer of The New Yorker and journalism professor at Columbia University; and Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and the Craig Newmark Foundation. Joining them was the forum’s moderator, Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post.

For the past decade, the National Archives has hosted two McGowan Forums a year on communications and women in leadership, discussing topics such as obstacles and opportunities for women leaders in the military, the extraordinary experience of photographing U.S. presidents, and the changing landscape of political cartoons in the digital era.

The March 29 forum marked the first of a new series of McGowan Forums concerned with ethics. The Fund hopes the series will develop enriching connections to work in ethical leadership already conducted through the McGowan Fellows Program.

A central concern of the evening was casting light upon the ethical considerations of journalists and those leading the news business. News organizations face challenges in a new era of overwhelming proliferation and readership of stories (both real and fake) that are fed across the internet by social media like Facebook, as well as other online avenues.

A strong assertion was made by the panelists that facts and fact-checking are critical, and reaching toward truth in reporting is part of being a good journalist.

After a lively conversation between the panelists and Sullivan, an energized exchange of ideas and commentary took place as questions started flowing from audience members lined up along the stairs on either side of the theater. In addition, viewers participated by watching the live feed via the National Archives Foundation YouTube channel.

The conversation between panelists and audience explored what it means to be a part of a thriving democracy and the nature of capitalism, revealing the McGowan Theater as an ideal platform for engaged public discourse on ethical considerations from a variety of angles.

“We are proud that the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund has left an indelible mark on the National Archives,” said Patrick M. Madden, executive director of the National Archives Foundation. “Their generosity has provided support for free educational programming to diverse audiences from across the nation and the world, and helped the Archives share with the more than 1 million annual visitors from around the world the historical significance and modern relevance of the records of our democracy.”

The forum ended with hearty applause, but the evening’s conversations continued as people spilled out of the theater onto the National Mall.

The William G. McGowan Charitable Fund supports high-quality, free-of-charge programming at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration year-round to promote civic engagement and stimulate public discourse on issues critical to the nation. To watch a video of the Inaugural Forum on Ethics in Leadership, click here.