After White House advisor Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC’s "Meet the Press" to say that the White House put forth "alternative facts" to counter what media organizations had accurately reported about inaugural crowd sizes, her phrase made its way into headlines on dozens of news sites — which may have been her intention in the first place.
Her statement dovetailed nicely with what White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Fox News during a Sunday morning appearance: "The point is not the crowd. The point is the media is trying to delegitimize the presidency." This followed Saturday’s statement by President Trump that journalists are "among the most dishonest people on earth."
What better way to delegitimize the media than to repeatedly call its trustworthiness on matters of little importance into question? It sows doubt at a time when few U.S. adults trust the information they get from national and local news organizations, and it cements the idea that facts are subjective and debatable, rather than objective.
This is further emphasized by the algorithmic filter bubbles that show us more of what we want to see, so we’re more likely to spend more time liking things on social media sites, which also ensures we’re more likely to return, share our data, and be more valuable to these platforms.
If you looked at the Wall Street Journal’s excellent Blue Feed/Red Feed project this past weekend, you saw two very different Facebook universes. On the blue feed, there were pictures of Women’s Marches all over the world.
On the red feed, you were more likely to see small anarchist protests from Friday. Or you saw the press secretary again, accompanied by headlines like "Trump's new press secretary just made every single reporter hide their face!" and boasting huge inaugural ratings. The stories calling out the administration’s lies were likely nowhere to be seen. Reporters were not the heroes on the red feeds; they were untrustworthy villains, getting rightfully shamed by the administration.
What happens when reporters reveal accurate facts, if people who already doubt the veracity of the press don’t see them? What happens when reporters look at their own Facebook and Twitter feeds and don’t see the "alternative" lens that millions of people are viewing the news through?
And perhaps a more important question: Is it possible for news organizations to optimize for trust at a time when there are so many "alternative" ways to see the news?
As an industry, we’ve been talking about trust for a long while. I found a conference called "A Wake-up Call: Can Trust and Quality Save Journalism?” held back in 2005, when trust in journalism was then at an all-time low. The iPhone didn’t yet exist, Facebook was mainly limited to college students, and Twitter was still a year away from launching. Some of the talks seem quite quaint now, but other bits still resonate. This one, from Cole Campbell, the late Dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, is particularly relevant today:
[We have an] ambiguous relationship to the people we serve. We don’t know whether to blame them, serve them, ignore them, or how we ought to be treating the people who populate the communities we serve. We don’t know whether to think of them as clients, as customers, or as citizens in the narrowly defined Black’s Law/AP stylebook version or in the more expansive version. . . I think that’s the probably the central question that underlies what we’ll be talking about: who these people are, what do we think about them, what room are we going to make for them in our work lives, are we going to treat them as our peers, as our superiors, or as our inferiors.
Over the past 11 years, newsrooms have been decimated by cuts while trust has dropped even lower. It’s down 18 points since that Wake-Up Call conference was held. Since November, there’s been a renewed interest in thinking about ways to rebuild trust with audiences, to listen to audiences and to include audiences as trusted partners in our work.
Many have laid out good suggestions. In December, Susy Schultz suggested six ways that journalism can rebuild public trust with readers, including attributing sources more completely and laying out which FOIA requests weren’t successful.
The same month, Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund laid out a toolkit of practices for rebuilding trust with communities. He pointed to engagement, transparency, listening, solutions journalism, inclusivity and equity, and media literacy as key tools that journalists need to develop and invest in.
Cory Bergman, the then-general manager of BreakingNews.com, also pointed to transparency, among other things, as a way to build credibility with readers.
Kee Brants, of the University of Amsterdam, questioned back in 2013 whether a renewed "responsiveness to the public" would "win back trust if some of these new forms of journalism" were based on "the presumption of authenticity as a sort of replacement of authority and truth[.]"
"In such a form of populist journalism no one is responsible anymore for the rules of the game," Brants wrote. "Where responsiveness might be a start to restorative journalism, it may also be the end of journalism as we know it."
This may not be a bad thing. Having to rethink our relationship with audiences and thinking about ways to optimize for the factors that Josh Stearns laid out — engagement, transparency, listening, solutions journalism, inclusivity and equity, and media literacy — may result in fewer people "moving with their eyes closed and hands over their ears," as Marty Baron put it back in March.
Perhaps that means thinking more closely about design and editorial choices in terms of media literacy. Maybe that means indicating to readers how many sources were used, or how facts were obtained. Or, if you’re using algorithms to make editorial decisions, maybe that means making that clear and obvious to the reader on every page where the technology is used. Or maybe it means developing more tools like the one The Wall Street Journal made, so that people can realize that what they’re seeing may not be what everyone else is also seeing.
I remain hopeful. I trust that we will test, experiment, collaborate, share and trust our audiences and ourselves. The "alternative" is not in our democracy’s best interest — or ours.