Trust and Transparency
A national report (with a Tennessee co-chair) charts a decline in civic engagement. It also offers some solutions.
by jesse fox mayshark • march 18, 2019
On April 27, 2018, Dana Coester sat in a ballroom of the Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville before a panel of experts drawn from the worlds of media, government, academia and technology, and delivered a four-word verdict: “We are not winning.”
A call for philanthropic support of local media, and for accountability from online platforms.
Coester, an associate professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media and creative director for the college’s Media Innovation Center, said civic discourse in America is increasingly fueled by false narratives, deliberate misinformation, and appeals to racism and bigotry.
“Platforms like Instagram intersperse feel-good memes with horrific anti-Semitic and racist memes,” Coester said. “This unregulated soup of banality is an ideal medium for manipulative content in which white nationalists and other bad actors target our youth, our communities and our democracy.” (You can read her entire testimony here.)
The horrific reports this weekend from Christchurch, New Zealand, about a massacre of Muslims by a man who self-identified as a white nationalist, included details that resonate with Coester’s warning. As the New York Times reported, a long statement the shooter posted online was steeped in references to social media. At one point, he wrote, “Memes have done more for the ethnonationalist movement than any manifesto.”
How to combat the mushrooming proliferation of bad information is a major focus of the group that Coester testified to last year, the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. Last month, the commission released a report, Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America, that calls for urgent action on several fronts.
One of the two co-chairs of the commission is Jamie Woodson, who is currently a member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and was previously head of the education-reform group SCORE and before that a state legislator from Knoxville.
“A free press and accurate information is a foundational component of our society,” Woodson said in an interview last week. “At least, if we want to continue with this model we call American democracy.”
‘A Lot of This Is Our Own Doing’
The report makes proposals in three major areas, Woodson said: “One is restoring trust in journalism, the second is strengthening democracy through technology, and the third is revitalizing citizenship in the digital age.”
Among the recommendations:
- News organizations should commit to “radical transparency” in how they collect and report information, including adopting “best practices” for fact-checking, corrections and the handling of anonymous sources;
- Philanthropic efforts should support local journalism across the country;
- Online platforms should become “information fiduciaries” for their users, responsible for protecting their data;
- Social media networks should make it easy to track the source and author of posted information, and clearly distinguish advertising and sponsored content;
- Schools at all levels should prioritize civics education and digital literacy;
- And government and civic organizations should encourage commitment to a year of voluntary national service.
“We were humbled in many ways just by the sheer size of the issue,” Woodson said, “and hoping that the report can be a step one in really calling out that this is a national crisis. The public sector and the private sector both have some real obligations to think about and to take action.”
The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy was created in 2017 by the Knight Foundation, which supports journalism and arts programs across the country, and the Aspen Institute, which brings together leading thinkers and voices in a variety of disciplines to study complex issues.
The commission members span a range of backgrounds and perspectives. Woodson’s co-chair, Anthony Marx, is president and CEO of the New York Public Library. Others on the panel include Raney Aronson-Rath from Frontline on PBS; Yale University law professor and writer Stephen L. Carter; Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama; Christopher Ruddy, CEO of conservative media company Newsmax; and executives from Google, Gannett, CNN, Facebook and Kickstarter.
Woodson said the diversity meant it was sometimes difficult to arrive at consensus on contentious issues -- but she said it also served to model the kind of dialogue the commission hopes to help cultivate.
“The process really showed us that even in a time of polarization and partisanship that you can bring a diverse group of leaders together,” she said. “While unanimity isn’t always possible, you can really sort through some tough information and diverse perspectives and come with I think meaningful recommendations for forward movement in our country.”
Kristine Gloria of the Aspen Institute, who served as the commission’s associate director, said the effort grew from discussions about the state of the media after the November 2016 elections. The scope of the commission broadened to include not only the roles of media and technology companies but the responsibilities of citizens as well.
“You can’t lay the blame only on these sectors, a lot of this is also our own doing in terms of not being engaged in civics and in understanding our own government’s role,” Gloria said.
In considering the loss of trust in journalism, the report looks at several factors: an increasingly dense online media environment, with little to distinguish fact from opinion and outright falsehoods; the internet-fueled erosion of revenue models that have supported mainstream media; increasing political polarization; and “politicized criticism of media.”
(On the last point, the report says, “Nearly everything in this report can be understood and implemented without reference to the current president. But many feel we are at a particularly tense and precarious moment in this relationship.”)
Woodson said the report’s call for “radical transparency” by media companies is intended to help separate fact-based reporting from mis- or disinformation.
“It’s fascinating to me, just the rapid pace of technology influencing trust,” Woodson said. “With artificial intelligence, the morphing of things through video and digital platforms, there’s just so much out there. It’s not just putting a label on a story that’s really an advertisement -- it’s really complicated.”
Seeking New Models
The report also rings an alarm about the decline of local media outlets in particular and calls for new funding models, including philanthropy.
To that end, the commission’s work has already helped spur the creation of the American Journalism Project, a “venture philanthropy organization dedicated to local news.” Its co-founders are John Thornton, founder of the nonprofit Texas Tribune and a member of the Knight Commission; and Elizabeth Green, co-founder of the nonprofit educational news website Chalkbeat.
The American Journalism Project launched last month with funding commitments of $42 million, including $20 million from the Knight Foundation. How and what exactly it will fund remains an open question, whether existing local media, new startups, nonprofit organizations or other local media models.
“How it will scale is I think everyone’s question,” Gloria said. “We had several different business structures, governance structures that were considered.”
For technology companies and online platforms like Facebook and Google that increasingly dominate the distribution the distribution of information, Gloria said the commission was divided about how far to go in calling for regulation.
Since 1996, internet platforms have been protected by the Communications Decency Act, which mostly holds them harmless for any information published on their platforms by third parties. If someone libels you on Facebook, you can sue the person who libeled you, but you can’t sue Facebook.
“We have in there a call for a multi-stakeholder accountability organization,” Gloria said, “so that there is a place that the general public or concerned citizens can voice these concerns over what might be happening on platforms.”
The report’s call for civics education is one that new Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has also taken up, proposing a Governor’s Civics Instructional Seal to recognize schools that prioritize the topic. The state House Education Committee will consider a bill this week to create the program, which it says will encourage schools “to provide instruction regarding our nation's democratic principles and practices” and the history of the formation of federal and state governments.
“I think anything that Gov. Lee is doing to increase civic literacy and civic participation and engagement is a great thing,” Woodson said. “It’s such a keystone to our entire republic and how we function.”
But, she said, civic education should be more than memorizing names and dates. It should recognize the difficulty of working through complex issues and competing interests.
“That’s not, ‘Let’s get the answer right to a question on the three branches of government,’” Woodson said. “It’s a very different thing to actually take diverse interests, sort through complicated information and come to high-quality solutions for your community and your state and your country. That’s the bar that I really see that we should aspire to.”