It’s hard to talk about journalism’s positive contributions today without recognizing the imbalances that are shaping our experiences of news. What do we do about the fact that there are large swaths of the U.S. population who seem to live in a universe where facts, and even fact-checking, is met with resistance because those facts contradict their worldview, causing cognitive dissonance and a backfire effect? What about the reality of a hybrid news system in which there are so many purported sources for news today that the young, and indeed many of all ages, have difficulty separating fact from fiction, as one study by the Stanford Education group suggests? Today it’s easier than ever for us to practice what social scientists term selective exposure. And after all, we engage in selective exposure because, as anthropologist Pascal Boyer is quoted as explaining in Julie Beck’s article on facts in The Atlantic, “Having social support, from an evolutionary standpoint, is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life.” This means that we are predisposed to seek out facts that support the worldview that we hold and that those most important to us also hold – and it’s a threat to our very identity to try to deal with facts that challenge that worldview.
All of this leaves me with more questions than answers when it comes to the topic of how today’s young people are participating in changing the definition of “news” through their uses of social media. Yes, it’s a problem that they aren’t relying on traditional sources of evidence and verification and are instead tending to trust what their friends say rather than what is said by (fill in the blank with your own preferred source of news, recognizing that adults don’t agree on this, either). But for me, it’s important to begin with the recognition that this reliance on friends and those we trust for information verification is not a new situation, since social scientists say that as humans we’ve always been inclined to seek confirmation for the way we see the world.
The implications, then, are twofold: first, we need to help to create more support for cultures that value an evidence-based reality. This entails teaching young people how to evaluate information as well as how to grapple with ambiguities, such as when facts contradict their world views. Because dealing with contrary information can threaten deeply-held identities, it involves doing the kind of teaching and dialoguing that is sensitive and empathic and seeks to widen circles of identification rather than harshly reinforcing identity barriers. Also, based on my experiences in working with young people, such conversations involve trying to link new information with what young people know to be true from their own life experiences – especially when that lived knowledge itself is related to injustices that they and their family members and friends know about first hand. We as educators and leaders have to learn to find points of agreement and commonality so that we can support some aspects of what another person takes as truth even as we may also present information that challenges. But we have to do this while also recognizing and acknowledging former and present shared pain.
The second implication is related to the first, and it has to begin with a mind-bender: part of the reason that we think that there is so much support for an “alternative facts” universe is that it makes for a great news story. So many of us are craving information about what is going on that journalists and commentators are obliging our curiosity – as they should – by researching the topics of fake news and alternative facts. Some of this is highly entertaining, like The Guardian’s Top Ten Alternative Facts for a Post-Truth World that highlight films and books such as 1984 and Wag the Dog that seemed to presage today’s strangeness. But all of this attention feeds the sense that this is a large and influential trend that says something about what people actually believe.
Thus, the second implication actually grows out of the slim margin of good news that’s related to journalism. The fact that we are experiencing a dramatic resurgence of interest in and support for high quality journalism, as well as surging interest in emergent voices that are speaking from evidence of their lived realities, is evidence that many, and probably even the majority of people in the U.S., prefer an evidence-based reality to a reality that’s manufactured in support of a worldview. This then reframes the question of the future of news from one focused on human failings to one of system failure. How is it that our systems are making it so that those of the minority are threatening those in the majority?
And this is where we have to turn to questioning things like the rise of Facebook as a news distributor and propagator of fake news, as well as an electoral college system and a media system that inescapably favors coverage of the latest new political crisis instead of coverage on boring topics like laws and policies that for decades have been quietly yet effectively restricting voters from exercising their right to vote, or on how various groups and people are working outside of the spotlight to address those discrepancies in access to democracy. And those are topics for future blogs.