With distrust in both the media and the government at high levels—and the nation’s citizens often unable to agree on basic facts—an expert commission is calling on the press, technology companies, and the American people to take responsibility and make major changes.
The 27 members of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy, including Penn President Amy Gutmann, spent more than 18 months digging into the causes of the current epidemic of distrust and polarization. The panel’s stark and sweeping recommendations were released Feb. 5.
The commission was organized by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Aspen Institute. Commission members, who included journalists, academics, and executives from companies such as Facebook and Google, steered clear of politics. But the report does have pointed remarks about the broad disparagement of the news media.
“This commission … stands for a free and open press as an essential element of the great democratic experiment this country celebrates. It is as basic a value as self-governance itself, and it must be preserved,” the report says. “We are unanimous that a free press is not, and must not be seen as, the enemy of the people.”
Gutmann, who is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of communication in the Annenberg School for Communication, has long championed a free press and free expression in her scholarship and teaching. Her books on democratic education and deliberative democracy lay out a case for open and inclusive inquiry.
She says honest and accurate journalism is critical to both “the difficult task of democratic self-government and the ongoing pursuit of knowledge.” Every day, she says, she’s grateful for the journalists who go to work to champion open inquiry and constitutional democracy.
“No single principle is more fundamental than the free and robust exchange of ideas, especially when we disagree,” Gutmann says. “The commission’s recommendations reinforce that, while outlining the responsibilities of an unhindered press, engaged civic and business leaders, and an educated citizenry.”
Among the commission’s recommendations for media organizations: They should “practice radical transparency” and collaborate on common rules for labeling news, analysis, and commentary, as well as corrections, anonymous sourcing, and tracking disinformation. News organizations should avoid advertising that blurs the line between actual news and promotions.
Journalists should expand financial support for news, both in the for-profit and nonprofit formats, and seek more funding from philanthropic organizations. The commission calls for the creation of one or more venture-philanthropy groups to help grow new nonprofit news outfits.
It’s critical, the commission says, that newsrooms diversify—from reporters to executives—to reflect the communities they cover and include a broad range of perspectives.
The commission calls on technology companies and online service providers to take a much larger role in refereeing what’s happening on sites like Facebook and Twitter. These companies, the commission writes, should become “information fiduciaries,” with a loyalty to the user, safeguarding private data rather than commercializing it.
Online platforms should also help users understand where their information is coming from, by clearly labeling the authors and publishers of articles, as well as all advertising, especially “native” content, where ads closely resemble news. Targeted political ads should be clearly identified, and the companies should develop ways to identify false information and inhibit its spread.
The commissioners also challenge researchers and online companies to make technology better for people. Researchers should develop ways to measure what a balanced, democratic discourse looks like. Companies need to explain to consumers how their algorithms work and affect what they see. And journalists, companies, and consumers must come together to solve the problems that stem from the collision of interests and ideals.
Finally, the commission puts some responsibility on citizens, to become better educated and more engaged with what they’re consuming from the media, and on how they can make a difference. Recommendations include improving civics education in schools, encouraging a broader effort to bring people with different viewpoints together in public discussions, and encouraging younger people to sign up for a year of national service.
Schools should teach young people basic news and digital literacy, so those skills are built in as students engage with technology, especially social media.
Commissioners say the report is a compass, not a map, but they emphasize that the time to act is now. Anthony W. Marx, the co-chair and the president and CEO of the New York Public Library, recalls the story about Benjamin Franklin being asked, as he left the 1787 Constitutional Convention, whether the nation would be a monarchy or a republic.
Franklin famously answered, “A republic, if we can keep it.” Whether that republic holds is the most pressing question of our time, Marx says.
“I want to be able to say to my children that we will leave them with the strongest democracy that we can,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do. This report is just the beginning of that work.”