Nieman Foundation deputy curator James Geary delivered this talk to the Samsung Press Foundation in Seoul earlier this summer.
I would like to talk to you tonight about football, American football, unfortunately, not the kind of football that is more popular here in South Korea, which Americans call soccer.
I’d like to talk to you about one game in particular, which took place on November 23, 1951, between two American college teams, Dartmouth and Princeton.
Princeton was undefeated so far that year, and one of its players, Richard Kazmaier, had just appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, a publication for which I used to work—though not in 1951!
It was a rough game, even by American football standards. Kazmaier had a broken nose and a concussion; a Dartmouth player had a broken leg. It’s very unusual in America to see injuries like these in a game.
Official statistics showed that Dartmouth was penalized 70 yards, Princeton 25, not counting the plays in which both sides were penalized. But each team accused the other of unnecessary roughness, and campus extensively covered the dispute. For example, the Daily Princetonian (Princeton’s student newspaper) wrote: “This observer has never seen quite such a disgusting exhibition of so-called “sport” Both teams were guilty but the blame must be laid primarily on Dartmouth’s doorstep.”
The Dartmouth (Dartmouth’s student newspaper) wrote: Kazmaier’s “particular injuries—a broken nose and slight concussion—were no more serious than is experienced almost any day in any football practice … [during the season] Dartmouth players suffered about 10 known nose fractures and face injuries, not to mention several slight concussions.”
Two social scientists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, used this game to explore how two groups of people can watch exactly the same event but “see” totally different things.
Hastorf and Cantril showed a film of the game to groups of students at both universities and then asked them to answer questions about who they thought was to blame for the injuries.
When Princeton students looked at the movie of the game, they saw the Dartmouth team make over twice as many penalties as their own team made. When Princeton students judged the seriousness of these penalties, the ratio was about two “flagrant” to one ‘mild” on the Dartmouth team, and about one “flagrant” to three “mild” on the Princeton team.
When Dartmouth students looked at the movie of the game, they saw their own team make only half the number of penalties the Princeton students saw them make. Although a third felt that Dartmouth was to blame for starting the rough play, the majority thought both sides were to blame. And Dartmouth students generally felt that the charge of unnecessary roughness against their players was not true.
Hastorf and Cantril concluded that, although Princeton and Dartmouth students watched the same film, they actually “saw” two different games, writing, “It seems clear that the ‘game’ actually was many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as ‘real’ to a particular person as other versions were to other people.”
We can see this same phenomenon happening today, not when people watch football games necessarily but when they watch, listen to or read the news. For example…
A few weeks ago, Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said President Trump shouted and stormed out of a meeting about infrastructure, stating he wouldn’t work with Democrats until they stopped investigating him. President Trump, on the other hand, said he was actually very calm during the brief meeting, and he asked members of his staff to confirm that during a session with reporters, which they did.
Dueling fact perceptions don’t lead to polarized political values; polarized political values lead to dueling fact perceptions
When thinking about made-up (or “fake”) news, 23% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they thought first of the news media, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey; only 15% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents thought of the news media first when thinking about made-up news. 16% of Democrats thought first of President Trump or his administration when thinking about made-up news, versus just 7% of Republicans.
In the U.K., proponents of Brexit are convinced that leaving the European Union will restore Britain’s sovereignty and lead to economic prosperity; opponents of Brexit are convinced that leaving the European Union will destroy Britain’s sovereignty and lead to economic catastrophe.
Here in South Korea, there are still divergent views about the Gwangju Democratization Movement. In May, in a speech on the 39th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, President Moon Jae-in said, “No more controversies about this issue are necessary now … The truth about the May 18 movement cannot differ between conservatives and liberals. Our task now is to uncover the truth that has yet to be clarified. This will allow us to put down the heavy historical burden that Gwangju has so far shouldered and turn the May of tragedy into the May of hope.”
So it seems that even today we are still experiencing what Hastorf and Cantril observed about that 1951 Princeton-Dartmouth football game: People with different beliefs and different loyalties can look at the same events but “see” two entirely different things.
In their recent book “One Nation, Two Realities,” Morgan Marietta and David Barker came up with a name for this phenomenon: “dueling fact perceptions,” which they define as the tendency of people with opposing values to have opposing ideas about the facts, regardless of what the actual facts might be.
In their research, however, Marietta and Barker found that people’s perceptions of the facts are not driven by empirical evidence, but by the core values and beliefs they already hold, regardless of any empirical evidence.
It’s not that people first obtain and examine the facts about an issue and then form an opinion about that issue. Instead, Marietta and Baker argue that people tend to seek out perceptions about facts that already align with their values—and that’s what they believe.
In other words, dueling fact perceptions don’t lead to polarized political values; polarized political values lead to dueling fact perceptions.
There are so many examples of dueling fact perceptions today, in addition to the ones I mentioned a moment ago. Just think of the dueling fact perceptions that exist around issues like the persistence of racism, the existence of the climate crisis, a woman’s right to abortion, the economic and social impact of immigration, the safety and efficacy of vaccines… I’m sure each of you could come up with many more examples of your own.
“It is inaccurate and misleading to say that different people have different ‘attitudes’ concerning the same ‘thing,’” Hastorf and Cantril wrote in their paper on the Princeton-Dartmouth football game. “For the ‘thing’ simply is not the same for different people whether the ‘thing’ is a football game, a presidential candidate, Communism, or spinach … We behave according to what we bring to the occasion, and what each of us brings to the occasion is more or less unique.”
The social and political consequences of dueling fact perceptions are profound, as Marietta and Baker and others have noted.
Polarized political values lead to more and more dueling fact perceptions.
More and more dueling fact perceptions lead to disdain for fellow citizens with opposing views and disengagement from civil discourse.
Disdain for fellow citizens and disengagement from civil discourse lead to further partisan polarization.
Further partisan polarization leads to an erosion of trust in institutions like the government and the media.
An erosion of trust leads to the difference between facts and values being further erased.
As the difference between facts and values is further erased, scandals begin to have little or no impact, because one side will always reject the facts on which the scandal is based, which further reinforces the polarization of political values.
Even more concerning, in Marietta and Barker’s view, is that people who hold the least accurate beliefs tend to be the most confident in them. (Think of the climate crisis: Those who deny that a climate crisis is taking place become more strident in this view as more and more evidence of the human impact on the climate accumulates.) And people who are the most politically knowledgeable tend to hold more polarized fact perceptions.
So, it seems that psychology and technology have coincided to create this divisive political and social moment:
Polarized values have coincided with the easy availability of “alternative facts,” as Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway once put it.
An explosion of information has coincided with an implosion of trust.
And the rise of partisan media has coincided with the collapse of mainstream journalism’s cultural authority and traditional business models.
There is some good news, though. In the U.K., a recent survey found that Brexit has made respondents more politically engaged; 40% pay more attention to Brexit news since the 2016 referendum, rising to 50% among those aged between 18 and 24. And in the U.S., newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post have seen significant subscription growth since the election of Donald Trump.
The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
So, what can journalists do to ensure that civic discourse is based on facts and not on dueling fact perceptions?
One thing suggested by Yochai Benkler, of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and his colleagues in their book, “Network Propaganda,” is for journalism to move from its traditional understanding of objectivity as “neutrality” to a new understanding of objectivity as “transparency and accountability.”
This is one possible solution to the problem of “false equivalency,” in which journalists strive to objectively present “both sides” of an issue even when one side offers arguments that are false, manipulative, dehumanizing, or not worth reporting at all.
In their book Benkler and his colleagues explain the results of their study of over four million news stories over three years, both before and after the 2016 election, to map out the connections among news outlets on the right and the left of the political spectrum.
What they found was that the so-called right-wing media—most prominently, Fox News and Breitbart—was insulated from other segments of the media ecosystem. These sites tended to repeat and amplify biased, non-factual narratives within what Benkler calls a “propaganda feedback loop.”
The more centrist and left-wing media, Benkler and his colleagues found, tended to be more integrated into the wider media ecosystem in which mainstream news outlets fact-checked each other’s stories, constraining or correcting partisan statements that could be demonstrably shown to be false. The left-wing media also had its own partisan sites, but these outlets were also corrected by others in the mainstream ecosystem.
What can journalists do to ensure that civic discourse is based on facts and not on dueling fact perceptions?
There is no left-right division in the American press, Benkler and his colleagues concluded, but a “division between the right and the rest of the media ecosystem … [with the] rest of media ecosystem … operat[ing] as an interconnected network anchored by organizations … that adhere to professional journalistic norms.”
In other words, Benkler and his colleagues found that in the mainstream media, dueling fact perceptions are challenged and debunked, whereas in the partisan media they are not. “Having a segment of the population that is systematically disengaged from objective journalism and the ability to tell truth from partisan fiction is dangerous to any country,” he and his co-authors wrote.
They also offered this critique of political coverage: “When mainstream professional media sources insist on coverage that performs their own neutrality by giving equal weight to opposing views, even when one is false and the other is not, they fail.”
In a partisan media environment, “neutrality is complicity,” Benkler has said. “Professional journalism needs to recalibrate its commitment to objective reporting further toward transparent, accountable verifiability and away from demonstrative neutrality.”
This is starting to happen. Take The Washington Post, for example.
In November of 2017, after the Post published allegations that Roy Moore, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, initiated a sexual encounter with an under-age girl, the newspaper was approached by a woman who claimed she also had a sexual relationship with Moore as a teenager. The Post, suspicious of the woman’s story, eventually revealed that she was working for an organization that targets the mainstream media with false accounts aimed to discredit legitimate news and legitimate news organizations. The Post published a story and a video about how it uncovered the sting and explained in another video how it broke the story about Moore’s legitimate accusers.
Post reporter David Fahrenthold also used “transparent, accountable verifiability” in his crowdsourced, Pulitzer-winning investigation of the Trump Foundation. Fahrenthold combined traditional reporting methods with social media crowdsourcing to involve the public in his story on Trump’s philanthropic claims, many of which turned out to be exaggerated or not, in fact, philanthropic activities at all. Fahrenthold shared his progress on the story via Twitter, asking readers for tips and information at every stage of his reporting.
People may legitimately hold different views about Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy or President Trump’s foundation. But by being so transparent in its reporting, and so accountable in showing how it obtained and verified the information in its stories, The Washington Post makes it harder for people to hold different perceptions of the facts.
So, if one effect of dueling fact perceptions is that they erode trust in legitimate sources of news, news organizations can try to restore trust by bringing audiences into the reporting process.
Other newsrooms are experimenting with this, too. Jennifer Brandel of the startup Hearken has developed a platform through which audiences can make suggestions to news organizations about what to cover. She and others are calling for this reporting model to be incorporated into coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign by asking audiences a simple question, What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?
For the past two years, journalists at KPCC, a public radio station in Southern California, have been doing something similar, inviting community members to share the questions they would like KPCC reporters to answer. The station has now introduced mission statements for each of its reporters, brief descriptions of that person’s beat that appear at the bottom of each story. The goal: to narrow the gap between the newsroom and the communities it covers.
Of course, these innovations face one important challenge: People don’t always actually read the stories they say they want journalists to write.
In a recent survey by analytics firm Parse.ly and the news site Axios, for example, people said they most wanted to read news about healthcare, the climate/environment, and education. The news they actually read the most, however, was about politics and government, sports, and immigration.
But, just as people do not always read the stories they say they want to read, journalists are beginning to experiment with not always telling the stories they have traditionally told.
In March, when a man killed 51 people and injured many others at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “One thing I can assure you: You won’t hear me speak his name.”
Ardern’s comment is based on research that suggests publicizing the identity and ideology of a perpetrator of a mass shooting can lead to copycat killings. It’s an expression of an idea known as “strategic silence,” a deliberate effort to deprive perpetrators of mass crime and purveyors of racism or other hateful ideologies of the publicity they seek.
The idea is supported by relatives of victims, law-enforcement agencies, and researchers, and some media organizations are beginning to employ this strategy, too. A study of some 6,000 stories about the Christchurch attacks found that only 14 percent of U.S. publications named the shooter and almost none linked to his manifesto or the forum where he posted it, according to an article on strategic silence in Nieman Reports, a website and print magazine I edit at the Nieman Foundation.
When the accused’s trial began a few weeks ago, some of New Zealand’s major media organizations vowed “to the extent that is compatible with the principles of open justice, limit any coverage of statements that actively champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology.”
Some are now calling for strategic silence to be extended to dis- and misinformation, too.
A review by the progressive research organization Media Matters for America suggests that, in the case of false or misleading tweets by President Trump, media outlets continue to more often amplify rather than rebut them. Headlines and cable news chyrons regular cite false or misleading statements by the President without correcting them or providing missing context. That, in turn, allows dueling fact perceptions to fester.
There is a longstanding journalistic assumption that what a politician says, especially the president, is inherently newsworthy. If a statement is true, that may well be the case. If a statement is false or misleading, however, then strategic silence might be the more journalistically sound response.
“The choices reporters and editors make about what to cover and how to cover it play a key part in regulating the amount of oxygen supplied to the falsehoods, antagonisms, and manipulations that threaten to overrun the contemporary media ecosystem,” Whitney Phillips wrote in The Oxygen of Amplification, a report on how the media covers extremists. News coverage of “messages emanating from extremist corners of the Internet … makes particular stories, communities, and bad actors bigger—more visible, more influential—than they would have been otherwise.”
While choosing not to amplify misinformation or extremist views, reporters can choose to amplify other voices that are less often heard, through what’s come to be called “dialogue journalism”: collaborations between newsrooms and communities in which people with differing views come together, online and in person, to learn about and debate the issues on which they disagree.
Spaceship Media is one new media organization using dialogue journalism to bridge partisan divides and rebuild trust in the news. Partnering with news organizations, Spaceship Media facilitated conversations in communities in conflict, with journalists augmenting the conversations with reported stories so that participants ground their discussions in factual information. Among the conversations Spaceship Media held: agriculture in Minnesota, guns in America, and the housing crisis in San Francisco. It is also offered “The Many,” which used a closed Facebook group to bring together women from across the country to discuss their differing political, social, and cultural beliefs.
The goal is not to change people’s minds about any specific issue, but for people to engage respectfully in fact-based debate rather than remain mired in inaccurate dueling fact perceptions.
A similar motivation is behind a new initiative by StoryCorps called One Small Step.
For many years StoryCorps has facilitated conversations between ordinary people—without the mediation of professional journalists—which are recorded, broadcast and archived. Anyone with a smartphone can record an interview using the StoryCorps app. The One Small Step conversations are specifically designed for people with opposing political views to listen to each other with respect.
One remarkable One Small Step conversation took place between a Muslim woman and a male supporter of President Trump who met at an anti-Trump rally. The man attended the anti-Trump rally wearing a Make America Great Again shirt and hat. Some at the rally tried to take his hat away from him and burn his shirt. Watching this altercation take place, the Muslim woman became furious and ran over to the group—not to join in the attack on the Trump supporter, but to defend him.
The woman had a similar experience when people tried to forcibly remove her hijab, so she sympathized with the man resisting those trying to take his Make America Great Again hat. It was a “common ‘not OK’ moment,” the man said.
Journalism is the seam that fuses the two halves of divided societies
It was also a remarkable example of how two people who hold opposing political views can nevertheless find common ground.
At a time when journalists and journalism are under assault—financially, politically, even physically—it is easy to be pessimistic.
But initiatives like the ones I’ve described, together with the investigative work that remains essential to holding the powerful to account, show that journalists and journalism can reassert the primacy of facts as the foundation on which civic discourse and democracy depend.
A model for how to think about this moment in our political and social lives is not actually the American football game I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, but a distinctively Korean art form: ceramics.
Some of the finest examples of Korean ceramics were made in the 18th century, in the royal kilns at Gwangju. And for me, the most strikingly beautiful pieces are the milky-white porcelain vessels known as moon jars.
Moon jars got their name because they are large, round, and white, just like the full moon. They were originally made to contain flowers or wine.
But, in part because they are so large, moon jars are very difficult to make. They have to be made in two halves, and because the wet clay is so heavy, the halves tend to sag and bend in the kiln. As a result, moon jars are never perfectly round. They always contain some imperfection, and this imperfection is an essential part of the moon jars’ charm and beauty.
Also, fusing the two halves together in the kiln always leaves a seam visible, though often it is very faint.
I would say that journalism is the seam that fuses the two halves of divided societies.
“A perfect union happens when the top and the bottom surrender their individual selves and reach a compromise to exist forever as ‘one,’” says Young Sook Park, one of South Korea’s most famous contemporary potters, of her experience making moon jars.
Journalism’s most urgent task is to provide the common set of shared facts that is the only thing that holds together those with opposing political and social views, even if—especially if—the whole that these two halves form will always remain imperfect.