Posted by: structureofnews | November 21, 2016

Bubble Trouble

In this photo illustration, a Facebook logo on a computer screen is seen through a magnifying glass held by a woman in BernI was meaning to write this post – honest! – before the election, but procrastination has its benefits: Now the timing seems much more apt, even if the subject – filter bubbles – has heavily picked over. Which means I can talk about a different kind of bubble instead – the kind in newsrooms.

(So thanks, Donald.)

Much has been said about the phenomena of fake news on Facebook, not least in this great piece in the NYT Magazine by John Herrman over the summer, so I won’t dive in too much on the subject.  (For loads of context, check out this, this, this, this, this and this, Facebook’s defence.)

There are two pretty big – somewhat unrelated – problems to address on that front: One is how much flat-out untruthful/half-truthful memes are out there, masquerading as real news and crowding out real information; and the other is just how hard it is for good, serious journalism – the kind of work, for example, that the Washington Post did on the Trump Foundation – to actually get in front of audiences that matter. The latter is much more around the questions of virality, discovery, platforms, filter algorithms and issues of how to distribute rather than create news – of which another post, probably.

But in all of the angst in the media about how we failed to predict – or even contemplate – the prospect of a Trump victory has also been the meme about how the mainstream media inhabits its own bubble with a self-reinforcing worldview.  Which certainly has some truth to it.  As Fortune noted:

In part, that’s because much of the East Coast-based media establishment is arguably out of touch with the largely rural population that voted for Trump, the disenfranchised voters who looked past his cheesy exterior and his penchant for half-truths and heard a message of hope, however twisted.

Or, in a much more direct piece in Cracked magazine, of all places, David Wong writes of the rural poor:

They’re getting the shit kicked out of them. I know, I was there. Step outside of the city, and the suicide rate among young people fucking doubles. The recession pounded rural communities, but all the recovery went to the cities. The rate of new businesses opening in rural areas has utterly collapsed.

So the argument is that the media elite missed a key part of the story because they didn’t have enough insight into the rural heartland; that they sent reporters in to report, but largely as anthropological expeditions rather than as genuine explorations of what people’s hopes, dreams and fears were.

Liz Spayd, the NYT’s Public Editor, captured it well in a post-election column:

The red state America campaign coverage that rang the loudest in news coverage grew out of Trump rallies, and it often amplified the voices of the most hateful. One especially compelling video produced with footage collected over months on the campaign trail, captured the ugly vitriol like few others. That’s important coverage. But it and pieces like it drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.

So what’s a newsroom to do?  There are no simple answers, of course.  And clearly it doesn’t make sense to treat every voice as equal, or take every crackpot idea seriously. But newsrooms have to be much more willing to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom – about stories, coverage, themes, hypotheses, data – on a regular basis. It means not just coming into stories with a very open mind, but discussing what should and shouldn’t be covered with a very open mind as well.

And one of the best – perhaps one of the few – ways to achieve that is by bringing in much more diversity into newsrooms. And not just diversity in gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, to name some groups – but just as importantly diverse viewpoints and fundamental assumptions. (As a former colleague of mine at The Wall Street Journal noted to me years ago, the issue wasn’t only that there weren’t that many African-Americans in the Journal’s newsroom, it was that many of them had exactly the same educational background as everyone else.)

Not that diversity in and of itself is a solution.  But bringing in many more views and experiences – and encouraging discussion – raises the chances that a story plan based on misguided assumptions gets questions and examined well before it sees print.

None of this is particularly comfortable. No one likes to be challenged, or to have internal fights about every story.  But if we’re to do our job and examine issues in depth, we have to be regularly jolted out of our comfort zones, and be made to re-examine and re-validate our core ideas about what’s true, what matters, and what and how we should focus our energies on.

Or we’ll face another day like November 9 again.

(Now, as to getting someone to actually read all this great news we’ll produce after we do all that – well, that’s a different challenge.)


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