Finding the Truth in the digital age

Warning: This post is exceptionally long, and will be the first of several I hope to write in the next few weeks trying to sort out my views about the relationship between truth, The Truth and journalism and about ways we can make the relationship between the three clearer. So please be patient, and I hope it will all make sense in the end.

Over winter break, I read Superfreakonomics, a collaboration between economist Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and freelance journalist Stephen Dubner.

The final chapter of the book deals with some rather odd technological solutions to global warming, proposed by the thinkers at Intellectual Ventures, a think tank run by a former Microsoft CTO. These solutions basically amount to re-engineering the planet’s atmosphere. Their favorite in the book seems to be constructing giant, 18-mile-long hoses that pump sulfur in to the air, which would (theoretically) cool the earth.

The chapter was met by scathing criticism from established climate scientists and journalists with green credentials when the book was first released in the fall. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker has a pretty definitive take-down attempt, and RealClimate, ClimateProgress (twice! and a third time!) and the Union of Concerned Scientists also chip in, variously accusing Levitt and Dubner of misrepresenting their sources, of being ignorant of climate science and of misleading the public by acting like technological solutions are available if political or policy ones fail.

I am not going to recount the full debate here. I don’t have the time to do that, and I don’t have the expertise to summarize the points, or even fully understand them. And that’s the problem. Despite reading all of these blog posts, and having read the book, I have no idea if Levitt and Dubner are geniuses or fools, or if the ideas they are presenting are brilliant or foolish. I don’t have the background knowledge to evaluate these arguments, and I lack the time to develop this knowlege. I barely understand the lingo, and while I can follow the arguments, I’m stretching my high school and college science courses in order to do so.

So beyond admitting that I’m terrible at science, what point am I getting at? My point is that to the average person, most debates they hear about on the news are like this. I’m going to use politics as an example, since I would point that to that as the single area virtually every journalist understands well. But most people barely understand politics. It’s not that they don’t care, or that they’re dumb. It’s just that they lack the language and thought processes to understand politics the way the average journalist does. I’ll use an example from a great piece Chris Hayes, the Washington editor of The Nation, wrote about canvassing swing voters while campaigning for John Kerry:

[I]t was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the “political.” The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

To cite one example: I had a conversation with an undecided truck driver who was despondent because he had just hit a woman’s car after having worked a week straight. He didn’t think the accident was his fault and he was angry about being sued. “There’s too many lawsuits these days,” he told me. I was set to have to rebut a “tort reform” argument, but it never came. Even though there was a ready-made connection between what was happening in his life and a campaign issue, he never made the leap. I asked him about the company he worked for and whether it would cover his legal expenses; he said he didn’t think so. I asked him if he was unionized and he said no. “The last job was unionized,” he said. “They would have covered my expenses.” I tried to steer him towards a political discussion about how Kerry would stand up for workers’ rights and protect unions, but it never got anywhere. He didn’t seem to think there was any connection between politics and whether his company would cover his legal costs. Had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of tort reform, it might have benefited Bush; had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of labor rights, it might have benefited Kerry. He made neither, and remained undecided …

Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values–we all know what’s right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don’t even grasp what issues are?

I’m going to argue the feeling I felt when trying to evaluate the Freakonomics dispute is a variant on the feeling the swing voters Hayes met in Wisconsin had. I lacked the tools to ultimately resolve it on my own, and even after seeking out high-quality journalism on the subject, I still wasn’t certain who was right. The swing voters in Wisconsin were likely relying on local TV news and Associated Press briefs to become informed about politics, so how are they going to know any better?

I’m sure everything I read from Levitt and Dubner, and everything I read on the other side of the issue, was true. Someone said it, some research indicated it, etc. And I bet most of the news the swing voters in Wisconsin got was true.

But just because something is based in fact doesn’t make it True. Ultimately, either the solutions proposed by Intellectual Ventures will work or they won’t, and ultimately, either Kerry or Bush was the best candidate for those swing voters in Wisconsin. But the only people who have the tools and access to determine the Truth are journalists. And too often, journalists aren’t finding the Truth. And if they are, they aren’t letting their readers and viewers know about it.

To me, this is the defining problem and potential of journalism in the digital age: the Truth is more elusive than ever and yet, our ability to find it is greater than it has ever been. Consumers have access to more information – much, if not all of it, factual – than they could possibly know what to do with. But this information can easily lead to overload. And the poor nature of significant portions of it – chain e-mails, astroturfing, advertising, slap-dash blog posts – only make the problem worse.

You can point to a dozen other ways the digital age is changing journalism. We all need to learn how to shoot video and edit audio! Our business model is collapsing! We need to master government databases! We need to go hyperlocal! And these things are all well and good, but in the end, journalism is about telling stories. True ones. And if the journalists of the twenty-first century fail to do that, nothing else will matter.

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