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Can We Handle The Truth? Trying To Re-Establish A Working Infrastructure For News (Part I)

March 20, 2019

A story from Rewiring Democracy

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics , explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this first installment of the Rewiring Democracy series, we take a look at the challenges facing journalism, including decreasing trust in reporters as truth tellers, and the financial instability faced by media organizations.

In October 2018, one of the most ambitious and multi-faceted attempts to chart the future of journalism failed. When a blockchain-based journalism platform called Civil held its first public offering of tokens, very few investors bought them. This was the latest high-profile setback for the journalists, entrepreneurs, funders and other reformers who have been trying to save the news, either by restoring the financial model for journalism as a business or by resolving the objectivity crisis for journalism as a profession.

Unlike most of the other attempts to save journalism, Civil is trying to fix both the financial and objectivity problems at the same time. It was launched by former employees of the Denver Post who decided to form a blockchain-based news outlet called the Colorado Sun after allegations that the Post’s owners had interfered in the paper’s editorial process. Civil now encompasses 13 different media organizations in cities across the country. The basic idea is that investors can buy cryptocurrency tokens called CVLs that allow them to suggest stories for reporters to cover, challenge what they see as biased or inaccurate reporting, and serve as kind of a crowd-based conscience for the newsroom and editorial staff.

There were a number of basic reasons why Civil’s initial public offering failed, including the fact that many would-be investors couldn’t figure out how to actually buy tokens, or understand exactly how the tokens would help them influence the newsrooms. While the experiment isn’t dead, Civil and its parent company, ConsenSys, are being forced back to the drawing board. So far, their attempt illustrates both the ambitions and desperation of news media. The trends related to conscious engagement and subconscious technologies have destabilized journalism as a profession and an industry – and made it more difficult for Americans to agree on what is fact and what is fiction. In order to handle the truth, we will need to decide how to create a supportive new infrastructure for news.

“TRUTH DECAY” AND “PUBLIC-POWERED JOURNALISM”

For some time, it has been apparent that journalists have been losing their informal status as truth tellers. Citizens have been less deferential and more critical about the news, mirroring their changing attitudes toward other professions and institutions. Increasingly, people report and disseminate their own news. In some ways, the spread of fake news is nothing new; a recent New York Times article chronicled how Russia spread disinformation campaigns throughout the 1980s, including the widely-spread falsehood that the U.S. military created AIDS to kill African-Americans and gay people. However, technology allows inaccurate news to spread at a much more rapid pace. A recent study published in Science examined 126,000 news stories that were spread millions of times by millions of people. They found that false news stories spread much faster and more broadly than the truth, not necessarily because the news was false but because it was surprising (and people are more likely to forward information if it is surprising to them). Furthermore, the study found that humans, not bots, were more likely to spread misinformation.

RAND researchers call this phenomenon “truth decay,” arguing that a few trends have caused a decline in how we use factual information, including increased disagreement about facts, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, declining trust in sources of facts (even ones that we used to respect), and more value placed on opinion and personal experience over facts. In another recent Science issue, a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars expressed with urgency the need to “redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century.”

To reverse truth decay and rebuild their relationship with their audience, newsrooms around the country are using public engagement, particularly dialogue and listening campaigns. The American Press Institute recently convened community-minded journalists, editors, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to listening and dialogue as a way to better serve their communities. This group of individuals defined listening as “the process of seeking out the information needs, feedback, and perspectives of the people in our areas of coverage” and placed a particular emphasis on “attention to people and communities who feel alienated or have traditionally been marginalized by news coverage.”

By engaging communities, these journalists believe they can get a better sense of which stories people want covered. For example, the Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois, uses a community advisory board as well as monthly meetings that are open to the community so that the community can contribute their perspectives about the Star’s coverage as well as priorities for future articles. At the height of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, locals questioned what the Journal Star was doing to cover #MeToo, and the newsroom ended up creating a series of podcasts where local women and men discussed their experiences with sexual assault.

The nonprofit organization Hearken consults with newsrooms to help them create “public-powered journalism.” In a Hearken initiative called “Curious Texas,” reporters in Texas asked the public to point them in the direction of stories they were interested in reading. Other news outlets are taking similar approaches. After the Bangor Daily News wrote an award-winning series covering the life and tragic death of a young man named Garrett Brown, who was addicted to opioids, the newspaper received feedback from all over the state of Maine that something needed to be done. The newspaper ended up hosting a series of forums called the One Life Project with community leaders, first responders, high school students, and even gubernatorial candidates to generate priorities from the community to address Maine’s opioid epidemic, which the newspaper then published.

Although more research needs to be done, initial studies of journalist engagement with the public seem to indicate that it can positively impact newsroom finances. One study found that readers who connected with their newsroom through Hearken are five times more likely to become subscribers. And if the public starts to see local news coverage as a common good, it may encourage small and large donations to sustain quality coverage. For instance, in Philadelphia, a newspaper owner donated the company that publishes three local newspapers to the Philadelphia Foundation in an attempt to allow public donations to support news media.

Can blockchain save journalism? Can Americans have more of a voice in how organizations conduct journalism and can it be done equitably? Stay tuned as we explore the future of journalism in ‘Can We Handle the Truth?’ in the next installment of this blog series on Rewiring Democracy.

Newbio Mattl
Author

Matt Leighninger

VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT & DIRECTOR OF THE YANKELOVICH CENTER FOR PUBLIC JUDGEMENT

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