Post Truth or Post Trust?

What a mess we’re in. We seem to have entered a strange new era in which we no longer know who or what to believe. A 2016 presidential campaign in which the victor, Donald Trump, used “people are saying” to such insidious effect, has left us struggling to distinguish between accusation-driven and evidence-based information.

Just how serious is this? Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama:

There is plenty of complicity to go around among purveyors and consumers of information.

NYU journalism professor and press critic Jay Rosen recently took news media to task for accepting false equivalencies as balance. “Instead of defining public service as the battle against evidence-free claims, they will settle for presenting the charge, presenting the defense, and leaving it there, justifying this timid and outworn practice with a ‘both sides’ logic that has nothing to do with truth-telling and everything to do with protecting themselves against criticism in Trump’s America.”

Consumers of news and information can be forgiven for becoming overwhelmed by a constant flood of digitally-conveyed content. But we also have been all too willing to accept an assertion as fact and letting it go at that, too busy or even too lazy to take on some responsibility for discerning the basis of the information shaping our perceptions of our world.

Americans’ trust and confidence in mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level since the Gallup Poll started asking the question in 1972. Now, only about a third of the American population, 32 percent -down eight percentage points from last year- has any trust in the Fourth Estate, a stunning development for an institution relied upon to inform the public.

The reasons for such pervasive distrust are many, but recent culprits range from the massive failure of mainstream media polling in the recent presidential campaign and a perception that news anchors and reporters have given up on asking tough questions, to the outright mass manufacture of false news stories posing as legitimate. Indeed, the editor of the nation’s second largest newspaper says he will not report Trump lies, even if he lies:

Mr. Baker has since clarified his position. You can read it by clicking here.

“Let’s properly define the problem,” writes Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition. “History and experience tell me it’s not a post-truth era: facts have always been hard to separate from falsehoods, and political partisans have always made it harder. It’s better to call this a post-trust era. In general,” notes Inskeep, “traditional news organizations are more reliable because their business model is to paint the clearest picture of the world that they can manage. But in the post-trust era, we know that any news source can steer you wrong at times, and they’re likely all jumbled together in your news feed anyway.”

Your news feed.

Until only very recently most of us did not fully comprehend, much less possess our own customized “news feed.” And now that most of us do have streams of external information pouring non-stop into our smart devices, we don’t necessarily manage them well, leaving us ever more confused and even misled, exhausted, and bewildered.

What could be more destabilizing to democracy, the cornerstone of which, according to none other than Thomas Jefferson, “rests on the foundation of an educated electorate”?

“The news-savvy consumer is able to distinguish fact from opinion and to discern the hallmarks of evasive language and half-truths. But growing evidence suggests that these skills are becoming rarer,” notes Marcus Banks in an article for American Libraries Magazine.

As this ability to distinguish real from fake information erodes, “nothing less than our capacity for online civic reasoning is at risk,” according to Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group, commenting for Banks’ article.

A November 2016 study by Wineburg’s organization found large majorities of the 7,800 students studied – at times as much as 80 or 90 percent – have trouble judging the credibility of the news they read and are apt to overlook clear evidence of bias in the claims they encounter. These challenges were found to persist from middle school to college – a generation that is by far more computer and internet savvy than older Americans and therefore might be expected to be more adept at sorting out what is real and what is not.

In an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers, Wineberg suggests the ability to determine what is reliable or not reliable has suddenly become the new essential skill in our society.

Conveyed by the speed, reach and impact of social media, fake news has converged in “perfect storm” fashion with decades-long efforts to steadily undermine the legitimacy of professional journalism.

“Fake news is the everyday news in the mainstream media. They just make it up,” Rush Limbaugh recently opined on his radio show. Limbaugh’s comment is rich in irony. (Click here to read my own behind-scenes recollection.) Limbaugh and now even the president-elect have appropriated the term “fake news” and turned it against any press they view as hostile to their agenda.

“In defining ‘fake news’ so broadly and seeking to dilute its meaning, they are capitalizing on the declining credibility of all purveyors of information, one product of the country’s increasing political polarization,” writes Jeremy Peters, a reporter in the NY Times Washington bureau in an article about the influence of rightwing talk show hosts and pundits. “And conservatives,” Peters continued, “seeing an opening to undermine the mainstream media, a longtime foe, are more than happy to dig the hole deeper.”

This delegitimization has been taking place for a long time. Laying this at the feet of American conservatives might serve some as a reason to stop here, writing off this article as just another “attack” by “the liberal media.” Conservative media, however, has for some time dominated the American information landscape, free of counterpoint. Non-partisan, evidence-based journalism has become a casualty.

“If the mainstream American news media are to have any hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic results—both for themselves and for American democracy—they need to change how they report on American politics, and on the ideological apparatchiks they continue to describe, misleadingly, as ‘journalists’,” argues Princeton history professor David Bell in a column for The Nation.

This disintegration of trust is dangerous enough when confusion between fact and fiction pertains to politics and governance. But it is life-threatening when people begin to doubt authoritative reports alerting them to immediate threats to public safety – perhaps the derailment of a freight train resulting in spillage of toxic chemicals; or maybe the imminent approach of a devastating tornado – the latter an example of another convergence: this recent acceleration of general distrust in media occurring on top of years upon years of often wild-eyed “boy-who-cried-wolf” hyperbole by broadcast meteorologists.

A mess, indeed. But the situation is not altogether hopeless,

Back to NPR, All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro, and a follow-up to the interview with Stanford Professor Wineburg that looks at efforts to bring “news literacy” to the forefront in education:

Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project’s senior vice president for educational programs, writes for the website edutopia.org about encountering teacher after teacher over the last five years who can recall two kinds of digital experiences with students.

“The first I think of as digital native moments, when a student uses a piece of technology with almost eerie intuitiveness. As digital natives, today’s teens have grown up with these tools and have assimilated their logic. Young people just seem to understand when to click and drag or copy and paste, and how to move, merge and mix digital elements.

The second I call digital naiveté moments when a student trusts a source of information that is obviously unreliable. Even though they know how easy it is to create and distribute information online, many young people believe — sometimes passionately — the most dubious rumors, tempting hoaxes (including convincingly staged encounters designed to look raw and unplanned) and implausible theories.”

Adams notes that “news literacy is a relatively new field in media studies that focuses on defining and teaching the skills that all citizens need to evaluate the credibility of the information they encounter, and on examining the role that credible information plays in a representative democracy.”

In addition to the News Literacy Project’s interactive “Checkology” program, the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism just launched a six-week online course on distinguishing fake news from reliable information. Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens is described as “a groundbreaking massive open online course (MOOC).

An extensive news literacy curriculum has been developed for the classroom by the American Press Institute.

The Trust Project at Santa Clara University takes advantage of its location in the heart of Silicon Valley “to imagine technology that can bake the evidence of trustworthy reporting — accuracy, transparency, and inclusion –plainly into news practices, tools, and platforms.”

The Trust Project was kickstarted with funding from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark:

Google is contributing financial support to the Trust Project which is also sponsored by the Markkula Foundation.

In Britain, the recent Brexit vote has given rise to so-called “Constructive Journalism.” This more solutions-focused approach to reporting “draws on concepts from positive psychology, moral psychology, and prospective psychology and allows the spotlight to be put on the immense potential for constructive solutions within society,” according to Giselle Green in a guest blog for the Association of Journalism Education in the UK. “Reporters/writers actively look for evidence of what’s working, or what could work,” she writes. “This isn’t about ignoring negative stories or searching for happy, fluffy stories. Or about advocacy journalism. It’s about rigorous reporting of serious issues which are framed to show what people are doing to address problems.”

The concept has been adopted by the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and Upworthy, among others.

It seems safe to say that until reality itself vanishes, we will never occupy a “Post-Truth” world. The truth is not perception. The truth is verifiable, undisputed fact.

“Trust,” on the other hand notes Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno, “implies a seeming unknowable — a bet of sorts, if you will. At its base is a delicate problem centered on the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires: a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his desire to meet his own.”

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