I spent this fall talking to young students at the University of Chicago about how to fight distrust in news and mitigate polarization.
As a Pritzker Fellow, I taught a series of seminars on this topic at the school’s Institute of Politics and brought into the conversation journalists from news outlets such as ProPublica, The New York Times, Czech Republic public radio, AJ+, and also smaller projects born from the current debate around civility and the public sphere such as Spaceship Media, Politibot, and First Draft. I tried to draw an arc of what’s going on, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, and what we can do about it—“we” as in journalists, platforms, politicians, and, especially, the new, promising generation that is about to enter the working world.
Every Wednesday afternoon, we discussed these issues around a table in the seminar room of the Institute of Politics, at the university’s Hyde Park campus. I also chatted several times a week with students during office hours; some looked for career advice, but others wanted to talk more about what Facebook could/would do and whether The New York Times was right in publishing an anonymous op-ed from a senior official in the Trump administration. Since the University of Chicago does not offer a degree in journalism, many of these undergraduate and grad students were studying public policy. Their level of engagement was visible from their volunteering around the South Side of Chicago, the programs run by students, the twice-a-week meetings of the College Republicans, and the voter registration drive for the midterms. The University of Chicago students won a challenge among campuses around the country by registering the highest percentage of undergraduate voters (they were particularly proud of beating Harvard.)
That energy and their insightful, curious, uncynical questions made me think that some of the malfunctions of the current news and political environment are more a reflection of a generational adjustment than an irreversibly damaged world.
On Election Day, I had breakfast at the top of a downtown Chicago skyscraper with a group of lawyers from a powerful firm close to the Democratic Party. Most of them were closer to the baby boomer generation than to the millennial or post-millennial one. Someone mentioned low newspaper readership and disinterest in news among young people. They were a bit surprised when I mentioned that the older you are, the more likely you are to believe a falsehood circulating on Facebook and the more trouble you have separating opinion from fact. Younger Americans are actually better than older Americans at distinguishing between opinion and factual news statements, according to Pew Research.
What I saw in particular in Chicago were students aware of partisanship, of technology manipulation, and of news outlets’ obsession with traffic, viewership, and attention (they would often find clickbait laughable). They tended to be more skeptical about platforms than about news organizations, but they demanded more answers from journalists and were particularly troubled by what they perceived as partisan agendas.
The picture about trust in the news is not as dire as some polls suggests at first glance. Responses to the generic Gallup question about trust in “mass media” show an improvement from the lows of 2016. The real issues are the distrust of many conservatives as the partisan gap has widened and the high asymmetry between conservative and mainstream outlets, as Harvard professor Yochai Benkler explains.
Generic questions get darker answers. When pollsters are just a bit more concrete and ask things such as whether news media are doing a good job covering the most important news events, most people say “yes.”
In the U.K., Pew Research shows 67% of the people say they trust media “not too much” or “not at all.” But 79% say they trust the BBC, which is also the main news source cited by the majority of adults.
Even with this caveat about polling, the partisan divide, and some exaggeration about the crisis of media authority, the most fragmented public sphere requires reflection. So what can we do for/with the next generation?
Be transparent about reporting methods
Louise Kiernan, from ProPublica Illinois, pointed out in our first seminar how successful pieces are when the news outlet addresses questions about issues such as what off-the-record means and how journalists verify an anonymous source. The Washington Post is trying this with their “how to be a journalist” approach, as it did with the video on the investigation of Roy Moore, the Alabama Senator accused of sexual abuse. Just an extra paragraph, detailing the number of interviews or what it means when an unnamed official is quoted, for example, helps to connect with the reader.
Don’t lecture, explain
A good example is Politibot, a chatbot on Facebook Messenger and Telegram that I co-founded with a group of journalists and developers in Spain. Politibot sends daily digests explaining a single political issue in basic terms. The experience is similar to texting. The format is simple and helps users understand any issue visually, often through charts, bullet points, and reader polls.
More reporting, less (or not at all) commentary
ProPublica has a policy about not running editorials and op-eds as it could confuse the audience about ideological agendas in the reporting. As we talked about it in the seminar, I was almost convinced that’s the way to go. I explained that news organizations such as The New York Times are very strict about the separation of the Opinion section from the newsroom, with different editors and a different chain-of-command, and how the famous op-ed was an example of that. Still, many students complained about the uniformity, even visually, of opinion pieces, news reports, and that hybrid piece, the “news analysis.”
Lisa Lerer, a 2018 Nieman Fellow and a national politics reporter for The New York Times who writes the new political newsletter, explained her success in using a more personal tone when reporting on politics through email. The goal of her newsletter is to report on stories outside the Trump obsession and to approach them with a more personal voice, one that could help get women and young people more interested in reading about politics.
Report on local stories
That helps to connect with the community beyond the usual stories around the D.C. bubble. Chicago offers many examples of that, from ProPublica Illinois’s reporting on the tickets that drive black motorists into bankruptcy and the South Side Weekly’s coverage of currency exchanges on the South Side, to the City Bureau’s coverage of the latest city council meeting thanks to citizens taking notes and the Chicago Tribune’s story about ice falling from skyscrapers.
Give more spaces for debate with more facts and less noise
Eve Pearlman, the co-founder of Spaceship Media, explained the method of “dialogue journalism” aimed at getting people from opposite sides of the political spectrum on an issue to talk to each other in closed Facebook groups and face to face in informed debates, where her team provides fact-sheets.
The seminar with her got many questions during and after, with students thinking about how to replicate that experience in multiple environments. A student engaged in the university’s civic programs wanted to develop something similar. A Swedish-Iranian fellow wondered how he could use it as a politician with the more skeptical voters, or even racist ones.
There is a space for reflection and conversation that news outlets need to take out of the public, noisy platforms. They could alternatively benefit from some of the more controlled, closed tools platforms offer.
Wikipedia is another example to look into as a case of a large, global network that manages to be a space for civility and knowledge.
Don’t call it fake news!
It’s an oxymoron, one that’s used mostly by politicians who don’t want uncomfortable reporting of their activities, and it could mean an array of things that could make it difficult to tackle the real problems.
Claire Wardle, from First Draft, explained to the students her useful classification of falsehoods: “misinformation” (misleading content), “disinformation” (including impostor, manipulated, and fabricated content) and “malinformation” (including leaks and hate speech), with the essential variable being content with intent to harm or not.
We discussed at length the responsibility of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms (most of the students were active on the first two).
As Claire Wardle said, platforms could more clearly identify sources of information and give more data about it (when and where a website was created, for instance); share metadata of visual content; avoid calling users “followers;” be more transparent about tools and metrics, and more active in combating propaganda and falsehoods. She wrote about it in a recommendations report for the Council of Europe.
In the seminars, we also talked about how Facebook has delayed and deflected some of the plans made after the 2016 election to combat hate speech, target harassment, and to reward civil conversations.
But most of the students said they use caution with anything they see on these platforms. They have grown up in a very different world than their parents and grandparents did, when most of the information was from the monopoly of a few, usually highly respected journalists, and when the expectation was that everything on a screen was true. A student explained that nowadays her first assumption is that most of the content she sees on Facebook and other platforms is not reliable.
It doesn’t seem an accident that 44% of U.S. Facebook users ages 18 to 29 say they have deleted the app from their phone in the past year. In comparison, just 12% of users 65 and older say the same.
After our conversations, I listed some recommendations for anyone who reads/views/listens to/shares news. But probably most of the tips are more useful for older generations than for 20-year-olds.
- Think before sharing
- Distrust absolute beliefs, especially your own
- Don’t add noise to the conversation
- Travel to other parts of the world/the country
- Enjoy shared experiences
- Subscribe to a news outlet
The current, digitally-savvy, and diverse students already know most of this. Even on the last point, they are improving, as shown by the increased turnout of the younger voters in the midterms. They read less print, watch less cable TV, and don’t listen to the radio as much. But they are still subscribing to news outlets, streaming Vice News documentaries, and listening to podcasts. These trends are very similar in Western Europe.
I was on campus when a report with data from the census highlighted how the so-called “post-millennials” (those born between 1997 and 2012) are on track to be the most diverse and best-educated generation yet.
I could see face to face what the numbers say. I had similar thoughts while I was a Nieman fellow at Harvard last year, especially auditing classes with undergrads, as I was often amazed about the nuanced debate and about their comments concerning music, race, gender, and whatever issue was at stake.
I think we are going to be OK. Happy New Year.