In discussing President Trump’s recent immigration ban with friends and coworkers many have mentioned the notion that we’ve entered a “post fact” or “post truth” era.  There is even a new Wikipedia page (created just last summer) to explain the concept.

Personally, I’ve been really struggling with the concept of a post truth era.  Rezwan Khan (my coworker and commenter on last week’s post) helped me think about this topic in new light.

Rezwan’s point is that we aren’t really living in a post-fact world, but rather “not-facts” are much more available than they’ve ever been before.  Here, I think he makes an important point.

If we rewind 20 years ago, the way that most Americans got their news was through the newspaper.  Now, it’s been a while since I’ve picked up an actual print newspaper, but as I recall there is a pretty clear divide between the section for “news” and section for “opinion.”  Typically, the first 15-20 pages of the paper are news, and then way in the back are a few pages of opinion.  I think it’s safe to say that the balance of fact-based-news to opinion is about 10/1 in favor of news.

Fast forward to today.  Two things have happened:

  • The barrier to entry for publishing an opinion piece has been eliminated
  • The “news” vs. “opinion” labels have been mostly lost

Today, everyone (even me) can enter the publishing world at practically zero cost.  And, most of the people that enter the new internet-enabled-zero-cost publishing world are presenting some degree of opinion.

Due to this trend, the balance between fact and opinion has changed – it’s no longer 10/1, now it’s more like 10/10,000,000 with facts drowned out by a vast sea of loud opinions.

What’s even worse, is that opinion pieces are getting farther and farther from facts.  In the old days with a 10/1 fact/opinion ratio, all opinion pieces referenced real facts.  Said differently, opinion writing was only one degree of separation from real news.  Today, opinion pieces often cite other opinion pieces as sources, which creates a self perpetuating cycle of confirmation bias.  (Note: I was recently guilty of this myself when I cited a Quora article as the source for my piece on Donald Trump).

This trend hasn’t just been contained to digital media – look for next time you watch the evening news and the newscaster cites her source as a blog, or tweet, or even just, “people have said…”

The whole thing seems a bit like a downward spiral.

One of the things pushing us farther down is the current online advertising paradigm, which (for the most part) treats eyeballs equally without rewarding publications with high quality journalism or research.

In 2015, I remember watching the movie Spotlight about the group of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the Catholic church molestation scandal.  During the whole movie – I kept thinking to myself: these reporters spend a LOT of time not writing newspaper articles.  How could they be making any money if they have so many people who are out doing research and not publishing?

To some degree that is the problem.

Finding facts takes a long time, it’s hard, and it’s expensive.  Writing opinion (or aggregating listicles of cat photos, for that matter) is easy and cheap.  The problem is, without dedication to facts, our free press is losing the ability to serve its true function as “checks and balances” counterweight for our elected officials.

In reality, I don’t believe that we’re actually living in a post-truth world.  Truth has just gone on a bit of a hiatus.

So, how can we fix this?  I think the remedy is actually pretty straight forward, we just have to do it.

  • We have to make sure that organizations that present truth get paid. This can be either with ad dollars or with subscription revenue (or ideally both)
  • As consumers we have to recognize the difference between facts and opinion – and we need to hold publishers accountable for clearly marking the difference
  • Facebook and Google – the two most popular online destinations (or the new “portals”) have to make a point to promote fact-based news, filter out fake news, and tweak their algorithms to present people with multiple viewpoints (not just reflections of their own views).

It’s not going to be easy, but during the next 4 years, I hope we will all find a way to make this happen.

The Balance of Facts vs. Opinion