Former director of BBC Radio and BBC News Helen Boaden painted a bleak picture of the journalistic landscape before a packed audience on Thursday evening as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute Series.

“All in all it’s not a very good time for accurate, unbiased, fair and balanced reporting,” she said.

A number of forces have shaped the current scene, but Ms. Boaden said economic pressures have been the most instrumental. As digital platforms have come to dominate, traditional print-based media has suffered. To illustrate her point, Ms. Boaden cited a Pew Research Center report that found that local newspapers in 21 states cannot afford a dedicated Washington D.C. correspondent to cover Congress.

“Across the country there’s a long, painful collapse of the newspaper industry as their revenue model, largely based on advertising, is destroyed by the digital platforms,” she said.

Hebrew Center was packed for a talk about the current state of journalism. — Mark Lovewell

And as digital media flourishes, hard-won journalistic principles like objectivity wither, Ms. Boaden said. But she doesn’t like the term “fake news.”

“It’s become almost meaningless. I mean, I can tell you my husband uses it when I claim it’s his turn to unload the dishwasher.”

But she was willing to indulge the term for a moment in order to get at the heart of the matter.

“Fake news has become a catchall,” she said. It is lobbed as an insult at legitimate reporting, she said, and it describes fabricated stories written to get views.

“But to me, its real meaning is actually something much more threatening. Propaganda, or political disinformation, is the most sophisticated form of fake news.”

She discussed websites like Breitbart, which publish politically motivated blends of truth and falsehoods. This disinformation then ripples out into the mainstream media. Citing Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler, she explained how these alt-right sites set the national dialogue, to ill effect.

“When we repeat a false allegation to correct it, we have the opposite effect,” she said. The falsehoods are simply reinforced.

“A kind of fluency emerges which gives credence to the incredible,” she said. “It plays to the conspiracy theorist in all of us. It works through repetition, variation, and confirmation by people and sources we already trust.”

This points to a larger problem in modern media consumption, Ms. Boaden said, that of confirmation bias. Though readers have a glut of options available to them, they tend to hone in on sources that echo their own beliefs.

“When confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic minded automatons. Instead, we gorge on information that confirms our ideas and we shun what does not.”

Ms. Boaden pointed out a particularly pernicious element of this innate psychological bias; that journalists themselves experience it too.

“The American media’s collective failure to spot the importance of Donald Trump’s swing voters may have come down to their own confirmation bias,” she explained.

Ms. Boaden said this issue isn’t new to the industry. She highlighted Walter Lippmann, a key agitator for a shift to a more objective approach in journalism. He was horrified by the emotional reporting coming out of Russia during the Revolution in 1917.

“He wanted reporters to challenge their own biases precisely because he knew they were as prone to them as anyone else,” she said.

One hundred years later, this journalistic standard is under siege. And this matters because, in Ms. Boaden’s words, “News journalism is the lifeblood of liberal democracy.”

Liberal democracy, she said, requires a marketplace of ideas. It demands that citizens live in an environment in which they are forced to grapple with ideas different from their own. Objective reporting and balanced coverage are crucial to this mission.

So, Ms. Boaden asked, “Can anything be done? Are there slivers of hope? Or must we simply accept that unbiased reporting was a passing phase in media history and watch journalism drift back into propaganda?”

“In the U.S., I genuinely think the omens are not good,” she said.

She did offer a few positive suggestions, though. From the tech angle, websites like Facebook need to take stronger action in countering fake news. Search engines should cull results so that fake news stories do not end up as top outputs.

Journalists also must take action, she said. They must think of ways to refute falsehoods without repeating them. Working against personal biases is another critical step; she held Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold up as a model. In his Pulitzer-prize winning reporting on Trump’s philanthropy, he first looked for evidence against his own hunches on the subject.

While the lecture was itself a kind of crash course in journalism, Judith Birsch, one of about 275 who attended the talk, asked, “If you were to set up a school of journalism, what would you have students learn about? ...What kind of experiences do you think are important for them to have?”

Ms. Boaden responded: “I’d have them out in field a lot, I’d have them in boring places, finding stories that aren’t big stories, but small stories.” She continued: “When a story seems very simple it’s usually wrong... in the speed of a daily newsroom, it’s really difficult to hang onto that.”

She spoke to this further while responding to a question from audience member Alan Brigish about the entertainment value of news.

“News very rarely gets to what’s important in a time. I mean the idea that it’s a first version of history, I increasingly think it’s nonsense. It’s no version of history at all, it’s just things that are happening then.”

She continued: “History, with brilliance and perspective, can work out what was important, but news focuses on conflict, drama, the atypical... what really shifts societies are the subtle undertones and changes and catastrophes that we don’t recognize until they’re upon us.”

While the speed of the news cycle, only hastened by digital media, increases pressure on journalists, Ms. Boaden said the answer is not to match pace. Journalists should do the opposite—she championed the concept of “slow news,” which she described as offering more depth and analysis.

“Despite the enormous challenges, now is not the time to give up on unbiased reporting.”

Our democracy, Ms. Boaden suggested, is at stake.