The End of Facts = The End of Empathy

Anton McGonnell, Technology Editor

On Tuesday 31st of January, Harvard University hosted an event entitled ‘The End of Facts – Journalism in a Post-Truth Era’. This session filled Harvard’s largest auditorium, the Sanders Theatre, and required an overflow area for students and faculty from Harvard and beyond. They had flocked to hear the musings of luminaries within news media such as Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt and Huffington Post editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen.

The discussion centered around the disintermediation of the news media, as well as the importance of the language used by the media to convey the most realistic depiction of their stories. The former is something that has been discussed at length since Donald Trump’s election victory. The media have always been the intermediary between business, government, entertainment, and the general public. We rely on media to inform us, and to understand who we should vote into government.  A successful democracy is predicated on an informed electorate – if we categorically understood who would serve us best, then society would run as it should.  In a perfect world, we would all understand every point of view and base our decisions on an all-encompassing consideration; we would be truly empathetic.

The Intermediaries behind the Disintermediation

In the age of digitization, we have access to more information than at any point in history. The problem is, there is far too much information for us to digest, so we pick and choose our content as we see fit. Instead of enhancing our understanding by giving us access to all points of view, it has eroded it. Instead, we simply consume more of the content that solidifies our disposition.

Facebook is perhaps the most important platform of communication today. In 2011, in the months following its record breaking IPO, its stock suffered a significant drop, due to what analysts felt was a failing monetization strategy. It was at this point that Facebook changed how it interacted with its users on both web and mobile. To drive ad sales, it only showed you content that it knew fitted with your beliefs and interests. This resulted in a sky-rocketing share price, and the simultaneous solidification of narrow belief systems within its user base.

Twitter was seen as the posterchild for disruption to news media in the digital era. Most major events around the world are reported by Twitter users before any news publication or broadcast. Twitter is as close to real-time news as we have ever seen. Whilst Twitter allows you to follow who you want, it often exposes you to the other side of the argument – mainly because of its system for dialogue -, which is where Facebook has gone awry. Yet – as any HBS student who attended a Twitter campus presentation will know – it is a company that is struggling to monetize and may not be able to maintain its current user experience as the strive for profitability. A recent Economist article pointed out that Twitter may need to break away with the conventional model of venture capital-backed tech companies and form a co-op governance structure, controlled by users. The logic here being that is must maintain its contribution the public good. This, however, is an unlikely outcome. (For more in-depth analysis of Facebook as a content provider, see ‘Why Facebook’s Algorithms are Destroying Democracy’ by Jack Samler)

The Signal from the Noise

The line between journalism and punditry has become muddied. Although journalism was far from perfect before new communication technologies emerged, it appears that we are going backwards instead of forwards in our quest for knowledge and information.

Facts are crucial to a society, which by its nature functions through the interactions of people. However, facts in isolation can be misleading. Context is needed to help us understand how these facts pertain to many moving parts. But the context to facts is written by humans, humans with biases and philosophical ideologies that are impossible to disassociate from facts. And therein lies the problem: holistic, unbiased, and universally credible news has proven evasive for mankind, yet it should be a fundamental cornerstone on which a democracy is built.

Austin Beutner

Media has always had these problems, but is digitization perpetuating them? Austin Beutner is a Senior Lecturer at HBS, teaching RC Leadership and Corporate Accountability. Before HBS, Austin was the youngest ever Partner at Blackstone, co-founded investment bank Evercore, and was CEO and Publisher of the LA Times. He has incredible insight into government, business and, of course, news media. Austin believes that journalism needs to go back to what it is good at: “the industry is changing and there is no going back”. The economics of the industry have changed. For example, whenever the LA Times publishes a story online, the vast majority of the revenue will be realized by Facebook and Google, not the content creator. And whenever an LA Times article is online, it often gets lost in the noise that has been created by the journalism versus punditry dichotomy. As Austin described, “everyone has their own printing press now”. Austin, along with a group of investors, attempted to purchase the LA Times in 2011 because he believed it should exists as a public utility, similar to how the co-op advocates see Twitter. In many ways, this concept seems paradoxical to our interpretation of capitalism and privatization, which are foundations of the US economy. Perhaps factual and holistic media content requires a different form of governance.

So has media alone really caused such a shift in western society? Not according to Austin, who says that “Media reflects society, it does not lead it.” In his view, modern manifestations of things such as populism have created the new media narratives, not vice versa. If this is the case, then changing society seems like a much more daunting endeavor than changing news media.

What Should We Do?

The fundamental undertone of the ‘End of Facts’ event and Austin Beutner’s words were clear; we need empathy. The only way for us to be truly empathetic is to be informed, and to be informed, we have a responsibility to read and understand all points of view.  Lydia Polgreen was undoubtedly the audience favorite at ‘The End of Facts’, with her liberal, yet tolerant rhetoric. That is, however, until a little-known journalist took the stage, named Lolly Bowean, who is a beat writer for the Chicago Tribune. Lolly told the audience of a piece she had written on a working-class woman from a Chicago inner-city area, similar to where Lolly herself was raised. Lolly said that when she was growing up, journalists did not come to her neighborhood. They did not write about normal people. And yet these ‘normal people’ are the same people that so many of us are moving further and further away from. Lolly’s point was that great journalism needs to highlight social inequalities, hold our politicians accountable and keep us abreast of the biggest challenges facing our society today. But great journalism also has a responsibility to help us understand normal people who differ from us is some way, whether through race, ideology or creed because, in the words of Bowean, ‘That is the path to bridging the division and helping us find true solidarity”.

These words resonated with me greatly. However, on reflection later that evening, her words seem too idealistic. Her stories about ordinary people are long and detailed, as they must be for her protagonist to be truly understood by the reader. These stories are not built for modern media consumption, which presents a problem for us at HBS. As students at HBS with the pre-ordained designation as ‘The Future Leaders of the World’, should we hold ourselves to a higher standard, to consume information in the most holistic way possible? Are there enough hours in the day? Harvard exists to foster constructive engagement. Can we disseminate that across wider society? Austin Beutner thinks so. His advice: “ask the questions that aren’t being asked.” So let’s start asking a lot of questions; let’s start being informed.

Anton McGonnell (HBS ’18) is from Ireland and has spent his career to date in health tech and enterprise tech and has contributed to innovation policy in Northern Ireland. He is passionate about artificial intelligence and its application in the future. He plans to found a tech company after HBS and make trillions. He also wants to make Belfast the new startup epicenter of Europe.