Anecdotal Evidence on the Topic of Truth

Last week, I attended one of the many events here at Harvard’s Institute of Politics; specifically, a study group with experienced congressional staffer Mark Strand. I’ve been to several of his study groups, and I truly enjoy hearing his perspectives, particularly because they are, in many ways, very different from my own.

That session focused on what Americans want from congress and why they feel dissatisfied with current American governance; the group featured two well known pollsters, who gave a presentation on the various issues facing ordinary citizens which combined to give rise to the Donald Trump phenomenon of 2016. The pollsters stressed the importance of supplementing raw data from polls with qualitative explanations drawn from focus groups. It is crucial, they explained, to understand not just the answer to a polling question but also the interpretation of that question that leads a person to give that answer.

To illustrate their point, they played us several clips from focus groups they had helped to coordinate in the course of their polling surrounding the 2016 election and its aftermath. One that caught my eye in particular was a conglomeration of clips about the media and its trustworthiness. The vast majority of Americans have ceased to place any trust in the media, and the focus groups bore this out. Many of us in liberal bubbles believe that the ‘Trump voter’ is a blindly indoctrinated follower of Fox News or a devotee of Rush Limbaugh. Many in the conservative bubbles see liberals as similarly indoctrinated followers of CNN and MSNBC. In reality, it seems, neither side trusts either bubble of media too deeply. Many of the focus group members reported watching both CNN and Fox, noticing the differences between the two, and not being sure whom to believe.

In light of this incredulity, I was struck by an apparent vicious cycle in American media, and a related chicken and egg problem. As news outlets proliferate, they seek specific audiences. As they seek specific audiences, they tailor their message to that audience. As they tailor their message, some of their consumers begin to notice discrepancies between stories told on one network versus another. This causes both networks to loose some credibility, and the consumer of news is more likely to search for a new news outlet, one that seems more independent, and more credible. This new news outlet may also be biased, perhaps heavily so, and depending upon the consumer of news, they may add it into their news diet, make it the centerpiece of their news consumption, or move on to a new source yet again. Regardless, we are back where we started; more news organizations, and more discrepancies.

Today we live under an epidemic of fake news and misleading, biased stories, coming from all sides of the media atmosphere. The question in solving the problem becomes finding the beginning. If proliferation of news networks is to blame, should we search for a way to return to the mythic days of the big three news outlets?

This is unlikely, if not impossible. Not only would it require either great social will or obscene government regulation, what news outlets would take up the mantle? There is no universally trusted news source; we are skeptical of even the most prestigious names and supposedly independent networks; there could be no consensus. Worse yet, while a single organization would have a great advantage in covering topics such as global affairs, local news would falter even more than it already has if we collectively choose to tune into one or a handful of national news sources.

Yet perhaps it is we who are to blame; perhaps it was our desire for tailored news that caused the boom in news outlets. In that case, the problem becomes even harder to fix; we need a wholesale cultural shift, a return to unbiased facts and agreements on at least the basic premises of the arguments we are having. Unfortunately, neither liberal, conservative nor independent is even arguing about the same thing any more.

So what do we do? One idea is based off the Wikipedia trustworthiness argument, the wisdom of the crowd. For any given news story, we might create a separate platform that allows us to simply vote on an article as seemingly credible or non-credible. Those articles that rise to the top are likely to include both liberal and conservative perspectives. Though this raises the risk of attracting bots, it seems we have to do something. After all, it does us no good in politics to have disagreements of fact when what we truly have are legitimate disagreements of opinion.

1 Comment »

  1. Mike Smith

    November 4, 2017 @ 4:59 pm


    Great thoughts, and thanks for bringing the IOP session into our conversation. On your comment that ” As news outlets proliferate, they seek specific audiences. As they seek specific audiences, they tailor their message to that audience.” I agree, but I think of it more as new outlets proliferate, they must work to capture an audience, which forces them to identify an audience and cater to it. If you were a news organization before the Internet, you had a built-in audience (i.e., your local region). The goal was to get as many people in that region to subscribe or watch you nightly. With the Internet, there is no concept of a local audience. You can reach the entirety of the world’s Internet population. Like you said, the question becomes why would anyone listen to you as opposed to another Internet media site. As opposed to going back to just three news outlets, I like to consider how we might bring back the incentives that lead to more balanced news when you had a local region influence? And yes, these local news broadcasters or newspapers might slant their news, but local citizens took the time and the broadcasters and newspapers took seriously the letters to the editor, which allowed the other views to be presented too (without too many trolls — local pressures again!).

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