To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

“Only by becoming aware of competing narratives, and understanding why and where they take root, can we begin to do the sort of reporting that holds the powerful accountable while also building shared truths.”

Over the past year, it’s felt like the things Americans can’t agree on are growing more and more basic and more and more numerous. This trend has been amplified by the spread of misinformation at all levels of our society. It hasn’t been stemmed by a mainstream media that’s grown bolder in calling false claims false, or by social media platforms that have taken new steps around conspiracy-theorist content. Instead, people are simply seeking out different platforms and outlets that reflect their unadulterated views — with our country growing more and more divided about reality itself in the process.

This erosion of shared, fundamental truth is likely to continue in the year ahead. It’s dangerous: As we’ve seen with the coronavirus pandemic and election results, competing and false narratives can spread like wildfire, with partisan media or conspiracists fanning the flames. In the year to come, news organizations must and will work to understand where this is happening and why, who is most at risk, and confront misinformation not just with the facts, but with compelling and credible journalism that can help create a shared picture of reality.

This an urgent challenge — perhaps the urgent challenge — for journalism today. At Frontline, we don’t have all of the answers on how to meet it. But over the last year, we have been involved in work at MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines to map the information bubbles that stoke polarization and to help come up with solutions to bridge those divides.

One goal of the effort has been to create tools, for journalists and others, that identify stories that are trending on social media for one audience while remaining invisible to others. Only by becoming aware of competing narratives, and understanding why and where they take root, can we begin to do the sort of reporting that holds the powerful accountable while also building shared truths.

We’ve also taken part in a multi-year effort with the MIT Media Lab to turn a lens on our own social media efforts — analyzing how the language we use to describe and promote our journalism on Twitter can help or hinder our efforts to bridge online political silos. This work is still in an experimental phase. But we’re finding that by adjusting our Twitter outreach to avoid certain unintended cues — coded words and phrases that appeal mostly to audiences on the left or right — we are better able to reach people who are interested in having a conversation and being challenged.

In a massive problem for our democracy, social media algorithms often reward extremes. So by using language that is “bridging” rather than polarizing to describe our journalism, we may sacrifice overall reach. But the people we do reach are less siloed and potentially more likely to engage with our reporting, and with each other, in good faith. To us, that’s a win.

And, finally, journalistic transparency may be another way to rebuild trust with a public that’s been inundated with cries of “fake news” and that believes it’s being lied to by mainstream media outlets. The core of what Frontline does is accountability journalism, and we’re committed to holding ourselves to account as well. We’re not afraid of showing our choices as editors. In what we’ve called the Frontline Transparency Project, alongside our finished documentaries, we have published dozens of extended interviews with our sources this year, making it easy for the public to compare what we were told with how it was presented in the context of a film. We encourage people to essentially check our work and see for themselves whether we’ve been fair. We welcome the exchange around our journalism, because it’s critical that the public be able to trust us.

It’s not enough to simply call lies lies. In the year to come, Frontline will expand on our efforts to deliver reporting that brings shared truths into view. We hope other journalists and news organizations will, too. It couldn’t be any more important.

Raney Aronson-Rath is the executive producer of Frontline.

Over the past year, it’s felt like the things Americans can’t agree on are growing more and more basic and more and more numerous. This trend has been amplified by the spread of misinformation at all levels of our society. It hasn’t been stemmed by a mainstream media that’s grown bolder in calling false claims false, or by social media platforms that have taken new steps around conspiracy-theorist content. Instead, people are simply seeking out different platforms and outlets that reflect their unadulterated views — with our country growing more and more divided about reality itself in the process.

This erosion of shared, fundamental truth is likely to continue in the year ahead. It’s dangerous: As we’ve seen with the coronavirus pandemic and election results, competing and false narratives can spread like wildfire, with partisan media or conspiracists fanning the flames. In the year to come, news organizations must and will work to understand where this is happening and why, who is most at risk, and confront misinformation not just with the facts, but with compelling and credible journalism that can help create a shared picture of reality.

This an urgent challenge — perhaps the urgent challenge — for journalism today. At Frontline, we don’t have all of the answers on how to meet it. But over the last year, we have been involved in work at MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines to map the information bubbles that stoke polarization and to help come up with solutions to bridge those divides.

One goal of the effort has been to create tools, for journalists and others, that identify stories that are trending on social media for one audience while remaining invisible to others. Only by becoming aware of competing narratives, and understanding why and where they take root, can we begin to do the sort of reporting that holds the powerful accountable while also building shared truths.

We’ve also taken part in a multi-year effort with the MIT Media Lab to turn a lens on our own social media efforts — analyzing how the language we use to describe and promote our journalism on Twitter can help or hinder our efforts to bridge online political silos. This work is still in an experimental phase. But we’re finding that by adjusting our Twitter outreach to avoid certain unintended cues — coded words and phrases that appeal mostly to audiences on the left or right — we are better able to reach people who are interested in having a conversation and being challenged.

In a massive problem for our democracy, social media algorithms often reward extremes. So by using language that is “bridging” rather than polarizing to describe our journalism, we may sacrifice overall reach. But the people we do reach are less siloed and potentially more likely to engage with our reporting, and with each other, in good faith. To us, that’s a win.

And, finally, journalistic transparency may be another way to rebuild trust with a public that’s been inundated with cries of “fake news” and that believes it’s being lied to by mainstream media outlets. The core of what Frontline does is accountability journalism, and we’re committed to holding ourselves to account as well. We’re not afraid of showing our choices as editors. In what we’ve called the Frontline Transparency Project, alongside our finished documentaries, we have published dozens of extended interviews with our sources this year, making it easy for the public to compare what we were told with how it was presented in the context of a film. We encourage people to essentially check our work and see for themselves whether we’ve been fair. We welcome the exchange around our journalism, because it’s critical that the public be able to trust us.

It’s not enough to simply call lies lies. In the year to come, Frontline will expand on our efforts to deliver reporting that brings shared truths into view. We hope other journalists and news organizations will, too. It couldn’t be any more important.

Raney Aronson-Rath is the executive producer of Frontline.

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