Trust, facts and truth in 2018

I’ve steeped myself in the news for as long as I can remember. As I child, I found it a great comfort. Journalists held up the world with tidy and brief explanations that spoke to my need for order. I was hooked from the beginning. I’ve been a student of journalism ever since.

Last year, something fundamental in my emotional connection to the news changed. I trust journalists. I want them to gather and test the facts of life. But, in 2017, I was deeply frustrated the news couldn’t give me what I really wanted. My comfort evaporated. In the upheaval and the chaos of the last year, I wanted the news to go beyond being a record of events and decisions, to somehow build a bridge between our individual ideas of the truth. Any objective observer can conclude last year brought more polarization than ever. I still love the news. But now, it’s complicated.

Journalism has limitations and if the audience isn’t an active participant in building bridges the whole thing can fall apart. In a world where the truth is negotiated and fought for in the new town square of social media, the challenge facing all of us is to meet each other in the grey of life.

2017 was the year I was forcefully reminded that humans have more influence over the shape of truth than ever before. The truth is no longer delivered by an anchor that I trust or by “authorities.” It is, as co-founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly describes, “networked by peers.” Or, as we at Edelman describe it, we are witnessing the systemic change of an inversion of influence.

You can get lost in the space between facts and the truth. The business of journalism depends on reliable facts. It also thrives on the tension created by absolute truths. The middle ground isn’t sexy. And, Donald Trump’s presidency creates a new panic around how malleable the truth can be.

The democratization of information through social media is fundamentally changing the way we learn about and talk to each other. It has changed the levers of control, power and order. The #metoo campaign offered an important example of that change with a force that took us all by surprise. Social media is also driving us into echo chambers where we can find validation in a feedback loop of everything we believe to be true. Our patience and attention span for the details is dwindling. In a world where we are often talking to ourselves, journalism can offer us facts and guidance but the truth is another matter entirely.

In this new world, polarization can’t be slowed if the audience doesn’t commit to some self-exploration. The idea that we are right with regularity and should remain immovable in our beliefs is foolish. Luckily, the push and pull for ideas and the fight for logic are hardly new.

John Williams recently wrote about the work of William James in the New York Times and his observations reminded me I should reach for his ideas again. Reading James and his theories on pragmatism over the holidays, I’m reminded that truth is rooted in the source. Rooted in you. It’s rooted in what you believe and how you’ve come to believe it. Rooted in how badly you need your ideas to remain true. James talks about the impact of temperament on your personal philosophy and how important the acknowledgement of that philosophy is to how we get along (or not).

James explains the realities of absolutism in his 1904 lecture What Pragmatism Means: “…the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. Truths have once for all this desperate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them.” He challenges us to unstiffen our theories and view the world with an openness that may help us land on shared realities.

There were many incredible stories covered by journalists in 2017 but two pieces opened my mind in this way. First, in November, the National Post’s Richard Warnica took us into the story of Anthony James Kiss, into the challenge of moral choices and the limitations of the law. To be human is a complicated business and this kind of journalism is exceedingly rare. Reading it made me want to send Warnica to go back and dig into every 2017 headline to show me the undercurrents.

If you think of your own life, you know the details matter. The real story is rarely agreed upon or fully understood. Sometimes it takes years to sort out why things happen. Now, more than ever, we need to reach into the grey of life and accept complexity if we want to hold together. Journalists can help but the work of trying to understand — even when we don’t agree — rests with all of us.

Second, a column I had been waiting for all year. The journey Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan took us into the U.S. heartland and her exploration of the nuances of media trust is important. She uncovers the heart of our challenge for 2018. It is not a matter of stubbornly standing up for what we believe to be right. It is not a matter of ignoring gaps and problems either. Lies need to be called out. Facts fought for.

But, we also need to stand up for the conversation. The conversation will bridge the gaps between us with time. The conversation will shape what we know the truth to be, for now.

If we want to make positive gains together in the coming year, the challenge then is not to force an ideological shift on our neighbour. It is not to subsume the ideas of one group in favour of another. It begins with questioning ourselves and why we believe in the ideas we do. Are we really right where we stand? Can we not have more productive conversations with the people we disagree with most? Are you open to having your truth altered?

Change will take us all forward and it’s my hope that where we land is a kinder, less strident place. Maybe I’m wrong but, after a terrible year, there is some comfort in the work left for all of us to do. Making sense of a complex world rests not just with journalists. It’s a job for all of us. In that work, there is a chance to make things better for everyone.

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