At a dinner conversation hosted by the Urban Institute and its board of trustees recently, we heard from leaders of vital institutions in news and technology: Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, and Anne Kornblut, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who recently departed the Post for a new role in strategic communications at Facebook. Guided by questions from Urban Institute trustee and Burson-Marsteller CEO Don Baer, they addressed the increasingly elusive nature of “truth” in a polarized political environment and fast-evolving media ecosystem.
Because Urban’s mission is to bring evidence to bear on important debates and decisions, Urban’s board took up this topic to help make sense of a modern environment in which there is too little trust and the truth is not mutually determined. As Marty pointedly asked the audience, what is the future of civil society when we can’t agree on basic facts, and when each of us has his or her version of the truth?
Facebook and the Washington Post represent institutions born of different eras and serving missions, but together, they deliver information to the public. Marty explained how the Post is enjoying unprecedented success, having realized that a successful, modern media institution does more than make news available online. It offers new methods of engagement, demonstrates transparency and accountability, and benefits from the increasingly important role that social media platforms play in bringing its products to larger audiences.
And although Anne emphasized that Facebook staffers would never consider themselves journalists, the company recognizes its responsibility as a global force that does more than connect people to information—it can drive social change, for better or worse. The company is taking that responsibility seriously, and it is taking steps to ensure the integrity of the content that gets shared on its platform, like training users how to spot fake news.
Don reminded us that the stakes for all institutions that offer expertise—the Urban Institute included—are high. A recent Gallup poll found declining public trust in many of society’s bedrocks, including Congress, the media, and schools and churches. This decline occurs as polarization increases and “alternative facts” become commonplace. The loss of local journalism has accelerated this trend. Marty pointed out that while national outlets are thriving, regional papers are struggling, and most can only afford to assign one reporter to cover all the legislative activity in the state capital. Furthermore, half the states do not have a reporter in Washington, DC, covering their congressional delegation.
In the face of these challenges, how can we ensure that evidence and truth guide debate?
Overlooked communities are places to start. Marty acknowledged that before the election, the Post had not captured the story of the America that lies beyond Washington. His observation speaks to a larger task for institutions like the Post, Facebook, and Urban: to listen to and investigate what matters to different communities.
Important decisions will be made at the local level, national policy will affect different places and people differently, and local media will struggle to cover all the new developments. Urban can help regional journalists and their audiences get the story faster by providing localized information and analysis on issues that matter to them, whether that means analyzing the implications of federal health care policies on their state’s population or how segregation affects economic and social conditions in a metropolitan region. We must continue to forecast and interpret potentially transformational policy shifts as they play out on the ground.
But it is not enough to conduct the research and share what we learn. We must also capture the diverse experiences of the people we study, sometimes in their own words. Some may argue that a research institution should not deal in anecdote. But sometimes, the most powerful way to communicate insights from rigorous research is to capture the story of people who represent a larger phenomenon and give a face to the data.
To rebuild public trust in vital institutions, those institutions must do more on the state, regional, local, and even personal level. This is where Urban will work to provide insight and drive solutions.