The first line in the sand I ever drew with a publisher occurred when he said he was hearing from his colleagues that our news pages and editorials were too liberal. We were about to conduct a 1,000-person marketing survey and I wanted to ask the “Is the newspaper liberal or conservative?” question and later ask if the respondent identified as liberal or conservative.
As I had hoped and expected, there was a 1-to-1 correlation between the respondent’s identification and the view of the newspaper. All conservatives thought we were liberal, and all liberals thought we were conservative. Drop the mic. The publisher never brought it up again.
Sadly, however, recent research is showing that there is nothing we can do to change the perceptions of our readers on many issues. They believe what they want to believe and no amount of research, reporting or “fact checking” can change their minds. The public “perceives reality in starkly different ways,” according to research by Professors David Barker and Morgan Marietta. They have been studying the divide since before the election of President Trump and have written a book called “One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy.”
The news for journalists is not good. We are not part of the solution because, well, there isn’t much hope for a solution. The professors argue, “Without agreement on where we are, deciding collectively where we ought to go is practically impossible.”
Fact-checking and trying to present a balanced view of both sides does not convince the public that journalists are disinterested because of two reasons.
The first one is “intuitive epistemology.” The public comes to an issue with a perception firmly in mind and listens only to evidence and reports that bolster that view, ignoring arguments to the contrary.
The second reason is that the fact checkers themselves often have an inherent bias and fact checkers often disagree when they check the facts. Outright lies are easy to check, but when politicians are deliberately ambiguous, then fact checking is more ambiguous. (To add to the problem, less than a third of the public believe fact checkers are unbiased.)
It would be easy to dismiss this, as I did years ago, as what naturally occurs when people of different political jerseys look at the other side. But Barker and Marietta’s research shows the nation is divided along moral issues. “It is the degree to which (the voter) prioritizes compassion as a public virtue, relative to other things like rugged individualism.” People see what they look for in the first place.
“In other words, people do not end up with the same answers because they do not begin with the same questions,” wrote Barker and Marietta.
To back this up, they note that the belief the vaccines cause autism is shared equally among people who identify as Democrats or Republicans. The real driver is different core values, not partisan identity.
So what is a newspaper to do?
First, I would try to understand that the journalist’s job is not to sway public opinion, but to report as many indisputable facts as possible. (“The Senate voted 53-47 to pass the bill.” “The deceased was shot by a person with a .45-caliber handgun.”)
In the more challenging cases, I still believe there is virtue in trying to balance a story, trying to represent as many sides as possible, even acknowledging the nuances.
I believe we could be more transparent in our reporting—offering the readers links to the research we have used.
Finally, we can just acknowledge the divide and split our editorial pages with this in mind. USA Today and others have famously done this.
Our web presence allows us an approach more radical. On controversial issues, we could simply split the difference and line up pieces with a “pro” version and a “con” version on the most divisive issues. Journalists cannot force readers to review “the other side” but they can offer it.
We should continue to fact check (even if most readers won’t believe it), and we should continue to offer multiple viewpoints on issues (even if most readers won’t believe half of them.) The issue for journalists is not to change minds, but to offer the disinterested view of the issue.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.