It’s Journalism’s Job to Save Civics

In early December, I spoke at the inaugural conference on Constructive Journalism hosted at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. The conference is the brainchild of my friend Cathrine Gyldensted, who has been developing the powerful idea that journalism can’t just inform us about the problems of the world, but must help us take action and transform the world for the better. The venerable Christian Science Monitor is refocusing its work around constructive journalism, and ideas like solutions journalism, put forward by David Bornstein at the New York Times are gaining recognition and traction.

My speech followed one by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, who talked about his decision to engage his newspaper in the “Keep It In the Ground” campaign, partnering with 350.org to advocate divestment from fossil fuel companies. My talk intersected inasmuch as I’m also deeply interested in how different organizations can make social change, and what news organization might choose to do at this surprising and scary moment in time.

Keynote EthanZuckerman, #CJC16, December 2nd 2016 from Constructieve Journalistiek on Vimeo.

This is a near-verbatim transcript of my talk, made using rev.com (which I highly recommend.) I’ve touched it up a bit so I sound slightly less stupid. If you want to see me give the talk, or ogle my exciting slides, the video of the talk is available here. (This was fascinating to edit, by the way. I like to think that I write the way I talk – I don’t. I suspect very few of us do…)


Even before I got here and discovered that the theme for this conference is “What nu?” I had titled my talk “What Now?” It’s a sincere question – I really don’t know what we do now. This is a very strange moment in time. Many people have been surprised by what’s happened in 2016, starting with Brexit, but unfolding outside the Anglophone world as well.

I’ve been spending a lot of time these days in Colombia. We just watched a country have a referendum on whether to end a 52-year civil war that completely transformed and destroyed a beautiful nation. People voted “no”, which doesn’t make much sense on its surface until you realize that my country just elected as president a man who has absolutely no interest in governing, no interest in politics, no interest in really anything other than ego and his own power.

What I want to suggest is that this is a moment that is shocking, but it’s not actually surprising for anyone who’s been paying attention. What’s actually going on is the continuation of a number of trends that have been happening for at least a decade now or perhaps significantly longer. The person that I found most useful in trying to navigate this moment in time is, weirdly enough, a television commentator. His name is Chris Hayes, who is on MSNBC in the U.S. He wrote a very good book a couple of years ago called “Twilight of the Elites”.

In the first chapter of this book, he says, “Look, let’s forget about this whole notion of left and right. It’s not actually very helpful at this moment in understanding the world. What’s much more helpful is thinking about institutionalists and insurrectionists.” Institutionalists are people who say, “Look, these big structures of society that we’ve built, whether they’re governments, corporations, or universities, they mostly work. They mostly get the job done. We need new, smart people involved with them. We need to make them stronger. We need to make them more modern, but the basic structures work.”

I would say the institutionalists have been winning for a very long time. Perhaps since World War II, the institutionalists have been firmly in control. Now there’s a new camp of people who are insurrectionists. The insurrectionists basically say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you looked around lately? Do you really think these structures are working? Do you really think government is doing what we want it to do as people? Do you really think unfettered capitalism the way that we have it in the world right now is working especially well? You must be nuts. It is time to knock these things down.”

That’s the tension. More than the tension between left and right is the tension between people who want to make improvements and tweaks to existing systems, and people who largely believe it’s time to pull those systems down, and try something else. I want to make the argument that over the last couple of decades, the institutionalists have gotten quite weak, and the insurrectionists have gotten quite strong.

This is a graph of responses to a question that the Gallup Polling Organization asks American roughly every six months. The question is very simple: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” This graph peaks in 1964 at 77%. If we go back to ’64, the enormous majority of Americans felt like the government is doing the right thing all or most of the time. The most recent version of this poll was at 19%. Now, I would point out that’s a moment of very high popularity in the Obama presidency. It’s actually been down to 9% or 10% over the course of his time in office.

I was born in 1973, and the only time that the majority of Americans have said that they had great confidence in the government in Washington during my entire 43-year lifetime was shortly before we invaded Iraq… which just shows what the American people know. The point is we have had massive decay in confidence in our government. We’ve also had massive decay in confidence in all sorts of other institutions. Asking similar questions about the police, organized religion, the medical systems, public schools, banks, organized labor, and of course newspapers and television news, we’ve seen collapses in confidence, particularly over the last 20 years.

This is not just not happening in the United States. The Netherlands, as it turns out, shows up as a fairly trusting country in Edelman’s Eurobarometer Trust Index. They’ve gone out and asked very similar questions about confidence in government, in NGOs, and all sorts of different sectors. The Netherlands is at the very high end of trusting countries. Trust seems to be increasing in the Netherlands, but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands and Scandinavia are quite rare within democracies. Within most mature democracies, trust is low and it’s going down.

Oddly enough, Northern Europe is in the same bin as autocracies. China, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, those for the most part are the only countries that seem to have very high trust in government. But even in the Netherlands, faith in democracy seems to be waning. Here’s a set of graphs from a forthcoming paper by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. This graph shows people’s answers to the question, “Is it essential to live in a democracy?”

These graphs are pulled apart by birth decade. Of people in the Netherlands born in the 1930’s, more than 50% said it was utterly essential to live in a democracy. You get down to people born in the 1980’s, it’s much closer to about 35%. You haven’t had the staggering fall that we’ve had in the United States, where we’ve gone from 75% down to the students that I teach, where fewer than 25% tell you that it is essential to live in a democracy.

Something has happened. Our confidence in these institutions has been badly shaken. You could make the argument that it’s been badly shaken, because frankly, these institutions are not doing a very good job right now. In my country at least, our democracy is highly dysfunctional. For the most part, we are not managing to come together and compromise. For the most part, we have oppositions between two parties who will absolutely not see eye to eye, and they end up spending an enormous amount of time and energy blocking each other and not getting very much done.

If you’ve been watching this for the last 20 or 25 years, it’s very easy to understand why people would become frustrated and alienated with this situation. If that’s bad news, I have worse news for us, because we are in the media field and people really don’t like us.

This actually became a common thing at Trump rallies. I’d like to remind you one more time: the person who we somehow have elected as the president of the United States, a common feature of his public appearances are his supporters standing up and chanting specifically about a fairly neutral to conservative media network, and their utter distaste for it. There is incredibly low confidence in our institution, that institution of journalism, very low confidence that we are doing our jobs without fear or favor, without agenda, that somehow what we are saying can be trusted. Instead what ends up happening is in an environment where it’s very, very easy for people to publish almost anything, we start seeing news that looks like this:

I wouldn’t expect you to be following the intricacies of U.S. politics, but about five days before the presidential election, the well known and highly celebrated Denver Guardian published the story stating that an FBI agent who had been investigating Hillary Clinton had committed suicide and burned his house under the incredible pressure that he had come under from Hillary’s sinister forces. This turned into people putting forward memes about Hillary Clinton being responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in her long and sordid career.

As it turns out, this story is entirely fake. There is no Denver Guardian. There has never been a Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is a website that someone put up because this was a way to get attention, and frankly a way to make money. Many of the most popular websites in the United States leading up to the election are run out of Macedonia. They are not run out of Macedonia as a giant Macedonian conspiracy to take over the U.S. government. They’re run out of Macedonia because it is a great way to make money.

It turns out that one of the best ways to make money as a Macedonian teenager right now is to aggregate links to pro-Trump, anti-Clinton content. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or false, so long as you put them together in a believable form. Run some Facebook ads on them and watch the money roll in. There are more than a hundred of these websites that are turning out to be a very robust media environment that people are paying an enormous amount of attention to.

My colleague Yochai Benkler over at Harvard is going to release some research in the next couple of weeks. He graphed links within the media environment in the United States leading up to the 2016 election. There are two major clusters to his map. We’re used to thinking of there being a left-wing cluster and a right-wing cluster. In one of these clusters in 2016, there are those noted left-wing sources like the Nation, the Guardian, The New York Times, also those noted left-wing sources like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Independent. Actually, all mainstream media ends up in one cluster.

In the other cluster is Breitbart and all of this stuff being run out of Macedonia, all this stuff that’s basically been made up for internet consumption. We’ve ended up in a moment where there’s very low trust in media, and frankly, there’s a lot of media that we would need to be very worried about trusting. Now, if you feel like this young woman here feels, you’re probably not alone. This is what happens with mistrust. Mistrust is designed to breed helplessness.

If you’re looking for some of the political systems that have tried the hardest to create mistrust, you can look to the media environment in Russia, which is trying very hard to build up a culture of conspiracy theory which makes it very difficult to figure out how to organize and mobilize. In the wake of high mistrust, the natural instinct is to look towards charismatic individuals, anyone who can stand up and say, “I will find you a way through this,” because when you have very low trust in institutions, it’s very hard to mobilize people to participate within those institutions.

If, as in my country, you have a 9% approval rating for Congress, trying to get excited about electing new Congresspeople is not a very easy thing to do. Those Congresspeople will tell you that if they get elected, there’s almost nothing they’re going to be able to do since so little legislation gets passed. In high mistrust societies, you see falling participation rates. You see falling voting rates. You see falling number of people running for political office, because they don’t feel like they can make change that way.

Weirdly enough, you may also lose the ability for protest to have change, because when you protest, you are almost always trying to influence someone who is in power. When you go on a march, when you go to the Capitol, you are marching in the hopes that your leaders will listen to your demands, will listen to your concerns, will take you seriously. Once you lose trust in those institutions, you may even lose some of the most popular avenues for dissent.

I want to suggest that we can understand these strange moments: this decision of our friends in the UK that the EU is not something they were particularly excited about anymore, the decision of my fellow citizens that we wanted a radical change in who is leading our country. You can understand this in terms of efficacy. If people don’t feel like they can be effective, if they don’t feel like they can make change through existing institutions, they will look for ways that they feel like their actions matter. If you look at Brexit, people who were very angry, very frustrated and concerned about directions in which their country was going managed to have an effect.

Will it be the effect that they were looking for? Probably not. It’s probably not going to magically save the UK healthcare system. It’s probably not going to change some of the demographic transformations that the UK is going through. Is the US magically going to become great again because we elected Trump? Almost certainly not. It’s almost certainly going to become more racist. It’s almost certainly going to become very difficult to compete in the global economy, but people felt so alienated, so pissed off at these institutions that being able to make this change felt powerful.

This idea of helping people feel power, helping people feel that they can make an effect on the world, this is the essence of what we try to talk about when we talk about this field of Constructive Journalism.

I’ve been showing this slide for almost 10 years now, before Cathrine was even really building up this idea of Constructive Journalism, but this has been my fear about how media works most of the time. We are very good at documenting things that people should care about. We get them riled up. We get them informed. We get them interested. We get them invested, and then we don’t tell them what to do, because frankly, most people are not as brave as Alan Rusbridger is. Most people are not willing to say, “We’re going to go a step further, and not just tell you what’s going on in the world, but we’re going to tell you ways that you could be effective as a citizen in doing something about it.” The best journalism thinkers out there have been urging us to do this for a while.

If you read one essay coming out of this conference, let me urge you to read this wonderful essay by Michael Schudson, “Six or Seven Things the News can Do for Democracy”. Schudsonbasically says, “Look, some of these are very familiar to us. We know we’re supposed to inform each other. We know we have to do these deep investigations and analysis. We know deep in our hearts, we forget it every time we look at a comment thread, but we know deep in our hearts that we have to provide public fora for people to discuss difficult issues.”

Many of us know that media at its best is about social empathy. It’s about helping us understand what people are thinking and feeling, but these last two get really radical. Most of us are not used to thinking of journalism as a tool for mobilization, but sometimes when an issue is as big as climate change, then we actually have to step up and say, “You know, there isn’t a meaningful debate about this. What there is is a failure of efficacy, and we have to help people figure out how to be effective in the action that they’re taking.” We have to help readers figure out how they would divest, how they would avoid these companies that stand to profit on an unsustainable way of moving into the future.

Then perhaps the most radical thing that Michael says is that we have to help people understand the value of participatory democracy. This is the place where I want to suggest that Michael doesn’t have it entirely right. That’s because I think we no longer know what we’re talking about when we talk about civics.

When we talk about public participation, we encourage people to participate in the ways we know are “right”. We urge people to inform themselves on issues. We urge people to go out and vote. Sometimes, we urge people to think about issues and potentially go out and protest. Remember, I’m making the argument that at a moment of very low trust in institutions, these things may be valid things to say to the institutionalists, but they do not help you with the insurrectionists.

As for the people who have already concluded these structures just don’t work, when you urge them to participate this way, they lose what little faith they had in you. They end up saying, “You’re part of the system that clearly isn’t helping and clearly isn’t going anywhere. You’re urging us to waste our time, waste our energy on these efforts that we know aren’t going to do anything.”

Here is how I want to suggest the world works these days. This guy is Larry Lessig. When he is not running for the U.S. presidency, he is a pretty good legal scholar. He wrote a book in 2000 called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. For people like me who study online media, this became something of an almost prophetic text for us. A lot of us read this and said, “Finally, someone actually understands that technology can control our behavior as much as laws do.”

Larry made this case that while we’re used to thinking about passing laws that determine what we can and can’t do, any number of technologies – which he refers to as “code”- can constrain us or enable us to do certain things.

You have all sorts of codes in the Netherlands that enable certain behaviors. You seem to have a fetish for bicycles. They’re rather well supported in your infrastructure. You have lanes for them all over the place. You have parking lots for them all at the train stations. You have a set of social norms that seem to prevent people from stealing them, but it’s a combination of norms and code that make these behaviors possible. Laws help create this environment, but a lot of Holland’s bike-friendliness has to do with the actual technical architectures.

Lessig makes this case that we actually use four different levers to make behaviors happen. We pass laws to make certain things legal and illegal. We use markets to make things expensive or cheap. In my country, gasoline is a whole lot cheaper than it is over here, which is probably why you guys end up riding bicycles.

We have social norms, where in the U.S., we get pissed off with people in bicycles because they’re taking my damn lane, and we take a swipe at them and so on and so forth. That’s not a particularly good thing if you’re a bicyclist. Social norms have a lot to do with how we govern behavior. Then we havetechnological architectures, codes that enable certain behaviors.

Here’s something I call “the inverted Lessig”. All of these ways that we control society turn out to be paths to social change. If we want to make the world a different place, we can pass laws, yes, but that’s really hard these days. At least in the U.S., trying to make change through laws has become highly professionalized and it’s become incredibly difficult. For many people, their chance to be effective, their chance to make social change happens through these three other levers.

Here is what it looks like: Most people note that the people in the US are not actually interested in the rest of world. We are in fact deeply interested in the rest of the world. We’re just interested in the secrets that you’re sending to one another, and because of our deep interest, we’ve been reading your mail, listening to your phone calls, and generally paying quite a bit of attention to the rest of the world, because it’s possible that you’re all terrorists. You may not even know it.

Our National Security Agency provides the helpful service of reading an enormous number of your communications to keep you safe. I as an American are not particularly thrilled about this. I’m rather deeply embarrassed by it. I’m pretty unthrilled that my allegedly progressive president Barack Obama has done very little to change this situation, and there’s not a lot that I’m going to be able to do in a Trump administration to try to provide privacy to all the digital communications that flow through the United States.

However, there are some awfully good hackers out there who are building things like Tor. They’re building things like Signal, which I use every day, a very good encrypted voice and SMS platform. There’s lots of people looking at technological structures that may be able to protect privacy even if we can’t make those protections through law. This is a way to try to make change when you can’t make it in one fashion. If you can’t somehow put surveillance back in the box under U.S. law, is there a way that hackers and coders can come out and make change through other different means?

It turns out there absolutely is. Then the question becomes, “How did people adopt it? How did people pick it up?” Allen [Rusbridger, of the Guardian] has been looking for change through markets. How do we get a group like Gates, like the Wellcome Trust to essentially say, “These large companies cannot to burn the fossil fuels that they’re pulling out of the ground?” There’s other ways to make massive change through markets. Consider a company like Tesla, which is trying to make electric vehicles, not only practical but dead sexy, and trying to figure out how to make solar power, something that everyone is using with power walls in their houses.

This is a way to make change even if governments aren’t willing at this point to pass laws, aren’t willing to sign on to international treaties, aren’t willing to set carbon goals that would help keep us at two centigrade degrees of global warming. A lot of my work centers on this idea that some of the most powerful change that we make is through social norms.

One of the things that’s happening in the United States is that unfortunately, our police shoot a lot of people. In particular, they shoot a disproportionate number of Black people. This is not a matter of law. It has been illegal to shoot people for a whole long time in the United States. It’s been illegal to shoot Black people for at least 100 years or so. We don’t need particularly new laws around this. What we do need is a set of social norms. What ends up happening is that people in the United States have a strong tendency to see people of color, particularly young men, as a threat, and this gets reinforced by the media.

When Michael Brown – a young man in Ferguson, Missouri – got killed by police, the media ended up using a particular mug shot for him. They took this image over to your left off of his Facebook page. Now, what does Mike Brown look like in this image? Just shout something out. What do you see about Mike Brown? How does he look?

Audience member: “A thug.”

Yes, he looks like a thug. He looks tough. Why does he look like a thug? What in that photo is making him look so tough? He shot from below, which makes him look taller. It makes him look bigger. This is a Facebook photo. This is an 18-year-old kid. Of course, he wants to look tough. I want to look tough. He’s put this photo up there to make himself look as badass as possible, and this is the photo the media has grabbed to discuss Michael Brown.

This is another picture of Michael Brown taken around the same time. What does Michael Brown look like in this photo? He’s sweet. He’s a baby. He’s got these baby cheeks. He’s a cute kid. He’s a nice kid. That’s a very different image of who this young man is. Activists looked at this disparity and said, “Let’s go into our Facebook feeds. Let’s find the photo that makes us look at our worst, and the photo that makes us look at our best.”

You look at this young man here, and in one of those photos, he looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with. In the other photo, this looks like a man who you very much want to celebrate about what’s best about America. Over the course of three days, this turned into a national campaign of people taking this on, writing essays about it, writing about why they want to participate in it. Within three days, this was on the front page of the New York Times, and more importantly, it’s very hard to find that first photo of Mike Brown anymore. You simply don’t see it.

Media got the point. They got the point that the way that we portray these victims of police violence has a lot to do with our norms about whether we see Black men and boys as dangerous or not. What’s our role in all of this? As practicing journalists, what should we be doing about this? The first thing I want to say is that if you buy my theory that these are the ways that we make change now, very different people have power than we’re used to thinking about.

Yes, politicians are powerful. They’re really important as far as making change through law, and they have a lot of power in terms of force of norms, but they’re probably not the most powerful actors in terms of norms. Celebrities are much more powerful, but not necessarily just the Angelina Jolie-type celebrities. Celebrities in terms of people who have lots of followers, whether it’s on YouTube or whether it’s on Facebook, people who are able to mobilize large networks of people to work together on an issue or to help people change their thinking have great sway over norms.

Who’s powerful in markets? People who already have money. It’s easier to be Elon Musk when you have millions of dollar to go and start a company. But also powerful are people who are able to raise money through different means, people through crowdfunding, people who are able to get different amounts of money together.

It’s possible to make a great deal of change through code. Platforms like Facebook end up being very powerful at this moment in time, but code is wonderfully asymmetrical, and you have individual hackers who have found ways to put strong encryption into software, proof an individual can make change.

We as journalists need to understand how power is working, who is powerful, and try to figure out how we tell and celebrate those stories. We also need to try to figure out how we get critical and careful about how power works in this news space. The project I’ve been working on for the last decade or so tries to figure out this question of how much influence media really has.

Alan [Rusbridger] told a brilliant story that involves running a campaign, getting it seen by millions of people, and at the end of it, the guy that he was targeting did the thing that he wanted him to do. That’s the best type of story that we can tell about the impact of media, but most stories aren’t that simple. Most stories don’t go from, “I wanted A, I ran a campaign, and I accomplished A.” Most are much more complicated.

Here is one of those complicated stories, and I’ve been trying to figure them out with a tool that we build in my lab called Media Cloud. Media Cloud looks at about half a million media sources, grabs every story that comes out of them, and then allows us to search them and analyze them.

What we wanted to search and analyze is how does English language media talk about people of color in the United States who were unarmed and killed by police. Like I said, there’s a lot of these people. We ended up looking at everyone from 2013 to 2016 to figure out what sort of media coverage they got after they were killed by police. We put a marker in this graph of Mike Brown’s death, because shortly after Mike Brown’s death, we’ve seen the emergence of the social movement called Black Lives Matter.

One of the big foci of Black Lives Matter has been paying attention to police violence against people of color. Before Black Lives Matter, if you are an unarmed person of color shot by the police, the most likely thing that happens is nothing. No one reports it. There are zero media stories. That’s that thick bit at the bottom of the curve. There is a small number of people who get a small number of stories. They basically get a small amount of regional coverage. There’s almost no one who makes it up to the top and becomes the object of national debate.

After Mike Brown, that curve’s very different. There are a lot fewer people who are invisible. Basically, if you get shot by the police as an unarmed person of color, there is going to be a story about it, whether or not it makes it up to the national level, that invisibility starts going away. In fact, that invisibility goes away in such a big way, or to quote my new political leader, “So bigly, so hugely,” that you have 10 times as much coverage shortly after Mike Brown’s death for the average person of color killed by police than you did before.

We see an even bigger effect on Facebook, when we looked at how these stories got shared on Facebook. These stories get shared. They get propagated. They get talked about. Unlike with the media, where frankly we’ve gone back down to ignoring unarmed people of color, on Facebook, we’re still at about four times as much attention as we were before Mike Brown. Audiences are telling journalists, “We still want to see these stories. We still care about this.”

What’s come out of it? Well, we’ve actually seen in most police departments in the United States a willingness to adopt body cameras. We’re up to the point where 95% of police departments are actively working on a program to put body cameras on all of their police. Now, is this as easy saying we had a movement around Mike Brown’s death, and then we paid attention, and then journalism changed, and we got body cameras? No. It’s really complicated. It’s really messy, but if you are working on a movement like Black Lives Matter, and your goal is to change the social norm, this is some pretty good evidence that those sorts of campaigns can work, and that they can work by modifying media and changing what we pay attention to.

I want to ask us to think about these things. Think about can we communicate how power works now, not just in terms of politics and law, but in terms of markets, in terms of technologies, in terms of social norms? Celebrate the successes of people who are doing this work well. Then finally, as Alan made the case, figure out how we link these stories to meaningful action.

So many of us have written stories where we’ve ended up saying, “Now that you know about this, please take action. Write to your senator or congressman. Sign this petition.” Stop doing that. For the insurrectionists, that doesn’t work. That’s a signal that you’re not serious.

Think about the other changes people are trying to make. Think about things that people are trying to do in markets with code, with norms. Think about how we link people to those actions as well as to legal actions.

One final thing: we have this tendency in journalism right now to feel very sorry for ourselves. This is a field that we are all enormously proud to be part of. This is a field that is harder and harder to make a living in, and I see more and more news organizations essentially saying, “You’re going to miss us. We’re going away. I just want to warn you.”

I’m not saying this isn’t true. I think this probably is true, but I also think it’s a lousy way to market ourselves. I think it’s happening in part because people are looking at what we’re doing, and saying, “You’re not helping me. If you were helping me, if you were helping me get over that moment of hopelessness, if you were helping me figure out how to be effective and how to make a change, I would find a way to be there for you.” I want to end with this idea. I don’t think it’s the public’s job to save journalism, but I do think it’s journalism’s job to help save civics.

I think we have to figure out how these changes are taking place, and whether we reach out to the institutionalists and say, “It’s time to make those institutions stronger and better than they ever were before,” or whether, and this is what I’m urging you, we reach out to those insurrectionists, and say, “We hear you. We know why you feel powerless. We want to help you become powerful.” If we can figure out how to save civics, how to get more people who are alienated deeply engaged with this, that’s the first step towards saving journalism. If we help the citizens who rely on us become more powerful and more effective, they’re going to step in, and then try to find a way to be there for us. Thank you.


Also published on Medium.

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2 Responses to It’s Journalism’s Job to Save Civics

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