Public trust for private realities

“How can journalism act as a public service when there is no “public” to serve, only a set of increasingly private spaces that are largely invisible to one another?”

It’s impossible to discuss what 2017 will bring for media without considering how this election has rocked assumptions about journalism’s relationship with both the public and those in power. On November 9, many people found themselves questioning how they had failed to see the scale of support behind Donald Trump. How could it be, when their visible universe was full of convincingly critical articles and friends who were dismayed and dismissive? Alternately, those who supported Trump found his victory obvious, given how thoroughly Clinton had been discredited according to every article they read and every conversation they had.

Call it peak filter bubble: 2016 saw the transition from what was held to be a commonly shared public reality to an extremely walled-off, divided set of micro-realities that never see or speak to one another.

While there’s been discussion about the impact of filter bubbles for years, it still came as a shock to see just how completely splintered our realities have become. How can journalism act as a public service when there is no “public” to serve, only a set of increasingly private spaces that are largely invisible to one another?

In 2017, we will see the media struggle with this splintering, to re-establish a broad public trust and a shared reality. There is a clear need for news sources that readers across the political spectrum can trust, in order to facilitate a constructive exchange of ideas. However, many believe that the traditional approach to “unbiased” reporting has led us into a world of false equivalence that does the public a disservice in communicating underlying truths. There is also a perception that “covering both sides equally” requires good faith by all parties, a good faith that has often been broken. In addition, even the most even-handed reporting can be seen as biased simply due to a reader’s belief about a publisher’s political leanings.

So how do we engender public trust? Some news organizations will bend over backward to become even more unbiased, mollifying their critics at every turn and becoming increasingly risk-averse. Others are moving in the other direction, calling for journalists to be truth-tellers regardless of whether that truth makes people angry. Both of these paths are imperfect. The first can lead to journalism that is unable to act as a check on the powerful because it is afraid to offend. The second may tell truths that no one will hear, except those who already believe them.

One of the causes of this fraught situation is the dire state of media literacy. Fake and inaccurate news proliferates not only because people want to believe it, but also because they have no methods for knowing how to assess the veracity of what they read or watch. That problem is furthered by the growth of distributed platforms for news consumption — Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP, and others serve to flatten the visibility of sources and publishers and to give an air of legitimacy to all comers. At a time when media literacy is at an all-time low, these platforms actually strip away the few tools we had to distinguish reliable sources from hacks. One of the most effective things we may aspire to do in 2017 is to find ways to make journalism more legible and interrogable, to make our ethical standards and reporting processes clear and evident. Some of these tools for media literacy may be purely editorial and some may quite literally be tools — technological and design solutions for probing deeper, viewing source material, fact-checking, ascertaining a publisher’s interests, and more.

The answers aren’t clear, but the questions that will shape 2017 are. They certainly inform the goals that are at the heart of Axios, which I joined this past summer. Our mission is to report information and analysis in a clear and straightforward way that engenders broad public trust. A large part of that is considering the needs of our readers foremost in everything we do; serving them first in a media landscape where their trust is often considered secondary to the demands of advertisers or the habits of legacy organizations. We will also be experimenting with editorial, technology, and design approaches to find ways of making those ethics legible to our readers.

It is a year of reckoning for the news media, one in which the trends and pressures of the last two decades of digital culture come to a head. Hopefully it is a reckoning that will lead to a reimagining of the media’s relationship with both government and the governed, a reckoning that will re-establish the power of journalism to provide sense-making and truth in an increasingly fractured reality.

Alexis Lloyd is chief design officer at Axios.

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