By Margaret Talev, Kramer Director, Syracuse University Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship
Americans, like news consumers everywhere, not only need but want to have better media literacy, a better grasp on how government and the economy work, and the skills to avoid being manipulated or misinformed. But most people don’t know where to get these, or whom to trust.
Millions of people hate how political polarization, anger and tribalism dominate our culture, work and personal lives — and make it harder to trust the news we consume or people we elect. They also fear isolation or cancellation and crave belonging. And the social media revolution that’s given us endless scrolling and new worlds to imagine also leaves many feeling overwhelmed or passed by. Even young people and consumers with the newest phones and access to high-speed internet face more fragmentation, more blurred lines between fact, falsehoods and fantasyland. Add generative AI and the ascension of deepfakes to the mix and there’s your brave new world.
My views on how to address these challenges are shaped by decades of work as a journalist covering news and politics, from Florida to California to the White House, and studying public opinion, the fallout from COVID and the events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. They are at the core of my newest assignment as the founding director of Syracuse University’s D.C.-based non-partisan Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship. My colleagues Johanna Dunaway, our research director, and Joshua Darr, our senior researcher, are national experts on the relationships between polarization, news consumption and how local news can help.
The challenges to democracy and journalism are deeply intertwined. At Syracuse, we are testing a new course called “Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship” that gives undergraduates an enormous amount of data from sources including the Edelman Trust Barometer, as well as Pew, Gallup, Ipsos and Harris polling. We look at trust trends, polarization of media consumption, mapping of news deserts, education around ethics and a guided tour of media literacy and civic organizations through which students can learn or get involved. The core idea is that understanding the divisions and efforts underway to address them is the first step.
Separately, several months ago, I convened with Catherine Gerard, of Syracuse’s Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC), a session for students and staff on how to have difficult conversations productively. Given the timing, we had anticipated discussions around abortion rights and affirmative action. Instead, the questions that students found most compelling touched on personal experiences with rejection, isolation or division: how to navigate abandonment by friend groups or a parent’s descent into conspiracy groups, especially descent driven by online misinformation masquerading as news. These conversations have prompted us to think more about the interconnectedness of polarization in individual lives and in society.
Each spring, I also teach a graduate course at Harvard’s Kennedy School called “Engaging the Media.” It is primarily for non-journalists. My students have included future candidates for office, diplomats, housing and immigration advocates, presidential advisers, ER doctors and entrepreneurs with start-ups. What they have in common is a desire to demystify the media ecosystem and better understand how to reach splintered and skeptical audiences.
Finding the data is the easy part (just start your search here). Convincing whomever you are trying to reach that the information you are giving them is factual or relevant turns out to be the trickier part.
Getting this right is a priority for all communicators. Yes, news organizations, governments, non-profit groups and schools and universities can and should organize media literacy and civic education and engagement efforts. But ensuring they really take requires creative and sustained involvement from major employers and people working in marketing, technology, professional sports, food, music, entertainment and the military. And not just “leaders,” such as CEOs, ex-presidents, Taylor Swift or somebody else who isn’t you.
I’m talking about you.
How can you start to become a better news consumer, one who not only improves your own understanding but is more able to connect with others across those partisan divides?
Three frames for delivering this trust-increasing change have captured my imagination: “The trouble with amber.” “Panic responsibly.” “Tell me three things.”
The Trouble with Amber
This idea was articulated beautifully at a recent get-together with current and former journalists and digital, tech and business strategists now involved in research, teaching and philanthropy. One colleague observed that the critical mistake local news publishers made early in the advancement of digital was trying to preserve their old business model in amber.
I love the look of amber — a beautiful golden-orange, translucent yet durable, so primordial it’s modern. My late mother had an amber necklace, bracelet and brooch, and when I wear any of these, I remember her. Real amber is fossilized ancient tree resin that once protected bark from gashes and hungry bugs. The trouble with amber is that no living, breathing thing can change, grow or survive if it’s encased in it. Just ask all those mosquitos frozen in their final pose for eternity.
Jeremy Gilbert, of Northwestern University, a former director of strategic initiatives at the Washington Post, summed it up like this: “Newspapers, radio, broadcast TV, cable and The Pony Express all thought they were brilliant and essential. But they had monopolies, all broken by new technologies.”
Today, there’s massive experimentation — and significant investment — to modernize and rebuild news, through streaming, social media, audio or reinventing for-profit and non-profit models for local news. These have not yet offset the business collapses and structural challenges. And we face new hurdles including deepfakes, AI, shortening attention spans and public news exhaustion and desensitization. So news producers must innovate to survive.
But a lot of that innovation is also raising new challenges for news consumers. Old assumptions about the accuracy and trustworthiness of a single source, which may once have made sense, no longer do, as old producers cut costs and corners as they struggle to survive. Even worse, some news providers have never set much store by facts and trust, instead making their money from engaging consumers, not edifying them.
For consumers, the best way to avoid finding themselves trapped in the amber of old habits is to get outside their comfort zones and broaden the brands and platforms through which they read and watch. If you usually stick to domestic news, focus on international coverage for a few days and see how that reframes your thoughts. Adopt the same trial approach if you do not typically understand or gravitate to coverage of finance, sports, science and tech, and so on. Spend an hour flipping from CNN, to Fox News, to MSNBC and back, noting the substantive and style differences, the chyrons, the cultural cues, the feel. Understanding just how different these universes are may help you understand people’s frame of reference — and how to connect with different audiences.
Through all of this, though, make factual information your North Star. If you read or see something shocking in one outlet, seek confirmation in large, reputable mainstream publications and consult fact-checking websites. If the claim is true, it won’t only be reported in one place or by one type of outlet.
I learned this phrase from Anchor Change CEO Katie Harbath, an AI thought leader and former director of public policy at Facebook. “Panic responsibly” has become her mantra, printed on stickers and other merch that she shares with audiences who hear her speak about the challenges, threats and possibilities around artificial intelligence.
Writing on Substack, Harbath describes a fear that “pushing the panic button on everything might inadvertently contribute more to the decline in trust in our institutions and electoral processes rather than make us more resilient.” The risk is that generalized panic will “negate the positive benefits of pre-bunking" — or preemptively debunking misinformation — “and other work to educate the public.” That could mean “we all get pushed into ‘our proverbial corners’ and just shout at one another about how the other is responsible for the decline of democracy, rather than working together to find a new path forward.” Harbath set five parameters for how to responsibly discuss issues such as misinformation and AI — or any panic-inducing topic:
Distinguish clearly between speculation and what’s actually happening.
Acknowledge complexity and nuance rather than attribute too much impact to any one incident, approach or person.
Instead of demonizing tech company employees with a broad brush, acknowledge the many on the front lines who do care about the impacts of their products on society.
Recognize that society is reshaping norms around speech and accountability for speech.
Don’t take the “panic bait” without first critically examining the claims.
Harbath, who hails from Green Bay, told me that her inspiration for “panic responsibly” came from a slogan on a T-shirt in her closet that reads: “Drink Wisconsinbly.” Perhaps maintaining one’s sense of humor should be a sixth principle.
Tell Me Three Things
This one sprang from an impromptu exercise with my undergraduate students one heavy Monday night in October.
I had asked how they were processing Hamas’ attack on Israel, Israel’s response in Gaza and the resulting distress on college campuses. Beyond repudiating terrorism and grieving for the loss of innocent lives, they also were navigating indirect anxieties: pressure to become overnight experts on centuries of conflict, make statements on social media they did not feel equipped to make, say the right thing and not say the wrong thing and not be accused of word salad. They feared misstepping, misspeaking, hurting others or feeling unsafe themselves. What if their friend groups split or cut them out?
We had been reading Chris Stirewalt’s thought-provoking industry critique, “Broken News,” for class. Our discussion focused on the human pattern of giving ourselves, or our allies, the benefit of the doubt even as we were attributing negative motives to strangers engaging in the same behavior. For instance, imagine you cut someone off in traffic. You might tell yourself you had a good reason, say, needing to get to a meeting or pick up your kid on time. Yet, you are less likely to empathize with a person who cuts you off, especially if they seem “other” than you or if anything superficial triggers you (“Of course the jerk driving the Tesla cut me off!”).
I suggested an experiment: Look at me. What are the top three traits you think define who I am or why I behave the way I do? “White” and “woman,” or “woman” and “white” in that order, were the first traits the students cited. For a third trait, one said, “mom,” while another said, “nice clothes.” Another said, “You look tired.” One said, “confident.”
But which traits did I believe best explained me? I told them, in this order: 1) Immigrant family. 2) Outsider. 3) Short.
What they thought motivated me was quite different to what I felt drove me most. Their descriptors were physical and largely touched on assumptions about privilege and gender, while mine stemmed more from childhood experiences with otherness and weakness, and a drive to outlast skeptics’ doubts about my place at the table.
Each student eagerly took a turn. For an hour, with each one’s consent, I guessed what traits drove them. The person in question would then reveal their often quite different answers, contextualized with stories about their family dynamics, childhood experiences and positive and negative reinforcements. In this circle of trust, we shared a lot. There were tears and laughter. We all left class that night understanding one another much better than we had imagined to be possible.
These were accidental yet profound revelations: Your guess about what’s motivating another person is much less useful than finding out what’s actually motivating them. And knowing their motivation may give you an entirely different perspective on them.
Basing decisions on accurate information and helping others to do the same — these are essential to protecting our democratic freedoms and repairing trust in each other.
So is adaptability: Pivoting when change requires it. Channeling panic into an informed response. And moving past our often superficial assumptions about the motivations of the 8 billion other people on Earth to a deeper level of understanding.
That process of building trust by increasing mutual understanding can only happen one interaction at a time. There is no better time to start than now.