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.

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Cory Haik   Be essential

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery