The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

“Truth is more than a collection of facts; it’s a mechanism for belonging.”

The past few years have been tough for journalists. Trained to report objectively on the truth, they have been forced to also defend it.

Defending the truth has never been primarily the job of journalists. Every society has its own mechanisms for establishing, reproducing, and accepting its own truths. This is how societies form, organize, and co-exist — around shared understandings of what truth is. Truth is more than a collection of facts; it’s a mechanism for belonging.

We affirm our sense of belonging when the societies we live in reinforce our understanding of truth. We become polarized when this understanding of truth is not shared by all who make up a society. We then fall back into what social scientists call in and out groups to affirm our identity. In plain terms, we find comfort in “us vs. them” ways of understanding the world.

Science is equipped to find, understand, and defend the truth. Scientists are taught to check their own bias in researching the truth. When there are many different truths to be shared and researched, scientists have methods of identifying what they all mean. This is what science does. Science is trained to defend the truth.

Journalists, by contrast, are trained to find the truth. Scientists need the help of journalists to tell truths to the general public. When the link between journalism and science is broken, trust in a society’s truth-telling mechanisms is broken.

The past few years have put journalists in the awkward position of defending truths long articulated by science. It’s not a fair position to be in. But it’s also not an unusual position for journalists to be in. At least, it’s not as unusual as we may think.

In authoritarian regimes, leaders have a habit of distorting facts to support their regime. More importantly, autocratic figures have a tradition of using rhetoric to advance their narrative of power. Those of us who grew up in dictatorial regimes are familiar with this strategy. But personal experience isn’t the only qualifier for relating with these experiences. A cursory look at history is enough to let people familiarize themselves with these tendencies.

What do journalists do in these cases? They unite. They work together. They support each other. They organize into resistance cultures.

Did journalists in the U.S. do so in the past few years? To the extent that they could, they tried. Still, many editorial decisions are made at high levels of media organizations. Media conglomerates that thrive on the market logics of capitalism cannot change their tune that easily. Shifts in course must have a connection to profit-making mechanisms. If not, the power of the fourth estate crumbles. (Also, people don’t get paid.)

The next few years will undoubtedly be met with massive efforts to rebuild the infrastructure of truth in the U.S. This will happen; it is a natural and inevitable reaction. Fake news will not dominate our infoscapes forever. It won’t go away completely, but it will become more marginal, because there’s been a change in the leaders we have elected to power.

But a simple repair to the infrastructure of truth won’t be enough to do the trick. We must work together to make the infrastructure of truth less vulnerable. Here are some things we can do to create a sustainable infrastructure of truth:

  1. Make room for science. Journalists, editors, and decision makers must involve scientists in their processes of storytelling. Granted, putting commentators and self-proclaimed analysts on air can make for more dramatic news and might increase ratings for a short while. But it drives away audiences in the long term. To this end, scientists must learn to tell better stories about their findings. To make their research more relatable. And journalists must find ways to tell interesting stories with less drama and more science.
  2. Let social media be. They are places for conversation. They are not places for journalism, nor are they places for truth-telling. Don’t assign something you heard on social media greater weight than something you overheard in your neighborhood bar, at your local coffee shop, or from your next-door neighbor. As anthropologist and recent MacArthur genius grant recipient Mary Gray reminds us, we should put social media in their place. Don’t turn them into things they were never designed to be.
  3. Understand objectivity. There’s a misconception that objectivity is about telling “both sides” of the story. Not so. First, there are more than two sides to just about everything. And sometimes, there is only one.

    Second, objectivity is about covering all important sides in order to tell the most accurate story. It’s about telling a story with the proper context. Some sides of a story may be biased; other sides may be inaccurate. And some may be true but still need to be processed from a certain point of view; we may need, for instance, to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes in order to understand their view on reality.

    In science, we often assign weights to statistical analyses to attain objectivity. Objectivity is not about devoting equal time to all viewpoints. It is about studying the context to assign proper weight to each part of the story.

    Think of truth as a puzzle. Not all pieces of the puzzle have equal size or occupy center stage, but somehow they all fit in. Some pieces don’t belong in the center, or as journalism professor Jay Rosen argues, if a narrative is false or inaccurate, it needs to be weighed differently or de-centered. That’s how the story comes together.

Five years ago, I embarked on a new project. I traveled the world and had conversations with random strangers about democracy and what might make it better. Rebuilding the infrastructure of truth is about better democracy, after all. This resulted in 100 interviews with citizens from 30 countries around the world, relayed in After Democracy: Imagining our Political Future.

As I debriefed my conversational companions post-interview, they all, without fail, asked: “What did other people say? Similar or different things from what I said?”

“They said the same things,” I’d respond, “but they used different words.”

I’m an optimist at heart and I do believe that we all share the same truth. We just use different words to articulate it, and words matter. Let’s build an infrastructure that is better at turning those words into the true stories that connect us.

Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois–Chicago.

The past few years have been tough for journalists. Trained to report objectively on the truth, they have been forced to also defend it.

Defending the truth has never been primarily the job of journalists. Every society has its own mechanisms for establishing, reproducing, and accepting its own truths. This is how societies form, organize, and co-exist — around shared understandings of what truth is. Truth is more than a collection of facts; it’s a mechanism for belonging.

We affirm our sense of belonging when the societies we live in reinforce our understanding of truth. We become polarized when this understanding of truth is not shared by all who make up a society. We then fall back into what social scientists call in and out groups to affirm our identity. In plain terms, we find comfort in “us vs. them” ways of understanding the world.

Science is equipped to find, understand, and defend the truth. Scientists are taught to check their own bias in researching the truth. When there are many different truths to be shared and researched, scientists have methods of identifying what they all mean. This is what science does. Science is trained to defend the truth.

Journalists, by contrast, are trained to find the truth. Scientists need the help of journalists to tell truths to the general public. When the link between journalism and science is broken, trust in a society’s truth-telling mechanisms is broken.

The past few years have put journalists in the awkward position of defending truths long articulated by science. It’s not a fair position to be in. But it’s also not an unusual position for journalists to be in. At least, it’s not as unusual as we may think.

In authoritarian regimes, leaders have a habit of distorting facts to support their regime. More importantly, autocratic figures have a tradition of using rhetoric to advance their narrative of power. Those of us who grew up in dictatorial regimes are familiar with this strategy. But personal experience isn’t the only qualifier for relating with these experiences. A cursory look at history is enough to let people familiarize themselves with these tendencies.

What do journalists do in these cases? They unite. They work together. They support each other. They organize into resistance cultures.

Did journalists in the U.S. do so in the past few years? To the extent that they could, they tried. Still, many editorial decisions are made at high levels of media organizations. Media conglomerates that thrive on the market logics of capitalism cannot change their tune that easily. Shifts in course must have a connection to profit-making mechanisms. If not, the power of the fourth estate crumbles. (Also, people don’t get paid.)

The next few years will undoubtedly be met with massive efforts to rebuild the infrastructure of truth in the U.S. This will happen; it is a natural and inevitable reaction. Fake news will not dominate our infoscapes forever. It won’t go away completely, but it will become more marginal, because there’s been a change in the leaders we have elected to power.

But a simple repair to the infrastructure of truth won’t be enough to do the trick. We must work together to make the infrastructure of truth less vulnerable. Here are some things we can do to create a sustainable infrastructure of truth:

  1. Make room for science. Journalists, editors, and decision makers must involve scientists in their processes of storytelling. Granted, putting commentators and self-proclaimed analysts on air can make for more dramatic news and might increase ratings for a short while. But it drives away audiences in the long term. To this end, scientists must learn to tell better stories about their findings. To make their research more relatable. And journalists must find ways to tell interesting stories with less drama and more science.
  2. Let social media be. They are places for conversation. They are not places for journalism, nor are they places for truth-telling. Don’t assign something you heard on social media greater weight than something you overheard in your neighborhood bar, at your local coffee shop, or from your next-door neighbor. As anthropologist and recent MacArthur genius grant recipient Mary Gray reminds us, we should put social media in their place. Don’t turn them into things they were never designed to be.
  3. Understand objectivity. There’s a misconception that objectivity is about telling “both sides” of the story. Not so. First, there are more than two sides to just about everything. And sometimes, there is only one.

    Second, objectivity is about covering all important sides in order to tell the most accurate story. It’s about telling a story with the proper context. Some sides of a story may be biased; other sides may be inaccurate. And some may be true but still need to be processed from a certain point of view; we may need, for instance, to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes in order to understand their view on reality.

    In science, we often assign weights to statistical analyses to attain objectivity. Objectivity is not about devoting equal time to all viewpoints. It is about studying the context to assign proper weight to each part of the story.

    Think of truth as a puzzle. Not all pieces of the puzzle have equal size or occupy center stage, but somehow they all fit in. Some pieces don’t belong in the center, or as journalism professor Jay Rosen argues, if a narrative is false or inaccurate, it needs to be weighed differently or de-centered. That’s how the story comes together.

Five years ago, I embarked on a new project. I traveled the world and had conversations with random strangers about democracy and what might make it better. Rebuilding the infrastructure of truth is about better democracy, after all. This resulted in 100 interviews with citizens from 30 countries around the world, relayed in After Democracy: Imagining our Political Future.

As I debriefed my conversational companions post-interview, they all, without fail, asked: “What did other people say? Similar or different things from what I said?”

“They said the same things,” I’d respond, “but they used different words.”

I’m an optimist at heart and I do believe that we all share the same truth. We just use different words to articulate it, and words matter. Let’s build an infrastructure that is better at turning those words into the true stories that connect us.

Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois–Chicago.

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