Journalism's crucial challenge: unifying truth to bring society together

Mar 18, 2024
audience fragmentation
Truth is the fundamental atom society relies on. Journalism must shift focus from mere facts to uniting diverse societal spectrums.
Image: Digital Zeitgeist
Image: Digital Zeitgeist
Technology, journalism, and more recently, artificial intelligence have become so intertwined that it's difficult to determine where one begins and the other ends. Not that AI or technology are inherent to journalism and not to other areas, but with journalism at the heart of the "big bang" of digitalisation, it's hard to imagine another field where the impact of the combination is stronger. But unlike adjacent areas, journalism deals with a concept that is not at all technological and completely crucial to the future of humanity - the concept of "truth". How does the fragmentation of public discourse and society deal with this concept?
The philosophical inquiry into truth has explored its nature, criteria, and the relationship between truth, belief, and knowledge. The definition of what is true varied a lot alongside history following the general historical developments. For example, after the Greek thinkers, who could explore less metaphysical definitions, the debate around truth became heavily ingrained in religion as the Catholic church became the most powerful force in Western culture, leaving very little room for critics, who ended up threatened or killed. But even under the pressure of the conditions of the time, philosophers (including several religious figures like Thomas Aquinas), the debate went on, always focusing on the intent to understand a common definition and perception of truth that could serve as a background for all society, and not only a part of it. Truth had to be undeniable, although the ways to reach it, could vary.
Since the Greek thinkers formulated their first thoughts, understanding the world was the main goal. For Plato (and for a good extent, the rest of Western philosophy until modern times), truth was an “objective property of reality, attainable through rational reflection and the understanding of the forms, which are perfect and immutable”. The license to contest truth is a relatively recent feature. After the rationalists like Descartes (who had a crucial role finally isolating philosophy from religion and bringing it closer to science), the perception of the world started to take a bigger role in the definition of what is true or not. German philosophy would open the Pandora’s Box looking for how we define ourselves regarding the world. Immanuel Kant was already deploying the building bricks of how truth is a social and individual construction, and derives from the relationship between us and the world. To put in a very beautiful phrase, truth is “the force field between subject and object”, meaning that the reality around us depends on our own input to be defined, and vice-versa.
This definition led me to think about the following scenario: imagine that, in front of the Rockefeller Center, in New York, the CEO of a hedge fund comes out of his limousine, and passes in front of a homeless person. Both of them are in the same place, at the same time, but reality, for both of them, is drastically different. This experience is something completely opposite to the notion of truth that journalists are taught to report. In the eyes of a journalist, going to the place and telling what is seen is the apex of his work. Yes, the objects are the same: the car, the street, the skyscraper, but the perceptions are so different that the CEO and the homeless person almost cannot speak the same language.
The lack of comprehension of how reality is defined by a two-way process is what makes a publisher like New York Times fail so candidly to reach audiences that do not frequent fancy coffee shops in Manhattan or are enlightened billionaires that feel guilty because they can see how unequal the world is. This failure is the gap that Donald Trump has used to poison the environment creating the post-truth moment we seem to live. Trump (and other populists as dangerous as him) understood that the American working-class that is getting older, have very little familiarity with modernity, and is overwhelmingly white is enraged by the improving lives of the NYT audience and the world they describe. This world simply does not exist for tens of millions of Americans, who will elect a much more angry, vengeful and irresponsible Donald Trump as president.
Adorno and Kant did not have in mind the use that Trump and other bigots lie for their followers. They (and many others) were simply addressing the complexities of reality. The irony that the most perfect dystopic character of capitalism used a clearly left-leaning piece of philosophy to create a movement is painful and dangerous, but once the box is open, you cannot change it any longer.
The role of journalism in the post-truth world is no longer to report what he or she is seeing. We must understand the audiences to make them understand how people on the other side of the political spectra are angry, afraid or frustrated. The right-wing is actively building and increasing polarisation, yes, but the left and other “progressives” have their input nonetheless when they fail to realize that if they are talking only with their readers, they will only make their readers angrier and increase polarisation. The groups that they would have to include in the debate are no longer listening.
The amplification of societal issues can be traced back to technological causes as well. The digital world's organization and dissemination of information favours those who aim to increase polarisation. Digital platforms are built on popularity and fragmentation, encouraging content that elicits strong reactions and catering to specific audiences. This leads to the formation of distinct realities that are increasingly disconnected due to diverging experiences and lifestyles. We've moved away from philosophical debates rooted in commonly accepted truths, such as the color of the sky. Real-world issues, such as US immigration, illustrate this. Washington DC elites may debate it one way, while those living near the border face starkly different realities. This isn't a judgement on differing opinions, but an acknowledgment that residents of places like El Paso deal with realities that aren't just distant statistics. Until more of society recognises that perceptions create different realities, one side will continue to mock or despise the other. Convince El Pasoans about the dramatic, desperate attempt of immigrants to cross the border is not allowing criminals invade America is far harder that arguing with a Bostonian. The wires shaping the realities for both of them are not congruent.
The times we live today (I said this way more than once) are very similar to post WWI, especially in Germany, who left the war torn apart by politics, economy and social circumstances that were the perfect environment for the Nazi virus to thrive. Back then, the rhetoric was remarkably alike, both from left and right. The former seems to not understand that the dangers looming around, and the latter is too irresponsible in its reckless search for power. Journalism would need a relevance way beyond the current one to help society to defuse the tensions and overcome the audience fragmentation that digital solidified. Truth remains elusive for most people as the kaleidoscope used for citizens to see the world resembles very little what objectively the things are. Are journalists and journalism ready for the task? No. Will they be? Probably not. But if we do not change the mindset to understand that the job to be done has changed drastically, the only thing we will be able to report is a new massive tragedy.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024