Our founder and CEO, Charles Sennott, was invited to give a lecture at Boston College as part of the Lowell Humanities Series on September 19. Here is an edited and condensed transcript of his talk, titled “GroundTruth in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era.”
It is truly an honor and truly humbling to be invited to be part of Boston College’s Lowell Humanities Series with its rich history, and a continuum of public dialogue by some of the greatest truth tellers from so many disciplines across 60 years: Robert Frost, Margaret Mead, Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, Michael Sandel and many others.
That’s a lot of what we would call ‘ground truth.’ The simple idea that the best way to ascertain truth ‚ whether you are a poet or an anthropologist or a scientist or an ethicist or a journalist — is to be there on the ground doing your work. It’s a pretty simple concept, but it is a philosophy that lies at the heart of all good journalism and it is what we believe in at The GroundTruth Project, where we support a new generation of journalists to tell the most important stories of our time.
And it is a concept that is fading, there is less and less ‘ground truth’ in many disciplines, not just journalism.
So what is truth? … It is a question as ancient as the Greek philosopher Plato and a debate as modern -— and Orwellian — as Rudy Giuliani in defending president Trump when he stated, “Truth isn’t truth.”
It is a powerful question of faith.
One of the most profound and eternally significant questions in the Bible was posed by an unbeliever. Pilate — the man who handed Jesus over to be crucified —Jesus had just revealed: “I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Pilate turned to Jesus in His final hour, and asked, “What is truth?” It was a rhetorical question, a cynical response … Pilate didn’t even wait for an answer, but turned to the crowd and gave them another chance to save Jesus, and they shouted “Crucify him!”
Two thousand years later, the whole world breathes Pilate’s cynicism. This questioning of truth permeates our civil discourse. We can no longer even agree on the facts. We have a president who, when confronted with truths he finds unhelpful, deflates them as fake news. In less than two years as President, he has uttered 5,000 lies using technology that forces us to calibrate it against the facts we see on the ground.
I do not say this as a partisan attack, but as the role of journalism.
But, how did we get to this point?
The 1960s created a belief that we can claim our own truth, and that the truth we claim is as valid as any other truth. In the 1990s, we created the Internet and suddenly all manner of truths were questioned through anonymous comments. In the 2000s social media was created and all this trends were multiplied and magnified.
Now we live in a time when it feels as if doubt has become weaponized. Truth itself is under attack.
So what does this mean for the craft of journalism? It means we have to work harder than ever to be sure we do our job. We have to do better. Journalism has failed us by failing to step clear of partisan politics and opinions and to do the work of hearing out all sides and getting the human reading. That doesn’t mean we have to be indifferent. That does not mean we cant connect the dots and call out leaders who defy the facts and state things that are not true.
And it definitely doesn’t mean we give up.
We have to recognize that the crisis of journalism has become a crisis for our democracy.
There are many forces conspiring to put pressure on journalism. The economic forces that batter an industry that doesn’t have a reliable business model anymore and the disruption caused by the Internet. Physical attacks on journalists, who are targeted like never before. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 1,281 journalists were killed worldwide between 1992 and 2016.
Harassment and attacks on women journalists are also on the rise. According to the International Women’s Media Foundation, more than two thirds of emerging women journalists have been harassed or directly threatened. One in ten has been directly attacked and as a result one in three are considering leaving the profession.
At the same time, trust in the media is plummeting. We have gone from being considered “defenders of democracy” by a majority of the public at the heyday of the profession, right after Watergate, to be called “enemy of the people” by our own president.
That corresponds with a massive decline in newspaper jobs. When I started in the craft the number of newspaper employees was around 450,000. Now we’re down to less than 180,000, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Less newspaper jobs means bigger news deserts. In 900 communities across America, since 2004 there is no longer any news coverage and all local reporting has gone dry, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
While local news shrinks, national news coverage by cable television like Fox and MSNBC is growing and our understanding of news grows politicized and polarized, pulling us apart.
Local news is on the decline particularly in rural areas that then have no coverage of their communities, which makes them feel unheard. The frustration they felt drove the election of Donald Trump.
Despite the sense that there is a liberal bias in the media, conservative media companies are aggressively advancing especially in local areas where there is a fire sale on local television stations especially. That includes the conservative conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group, which now reaches 40 percent of all households in America and could reach 70 percent if the FCC approves a large merger, according to Mother Jones.
So, what can we do to restore the trust in journalism and inject truth back into the national discourse? At The GroundTruth Project we believe that journalism should be thought of as a public service. That is why we launched Report for America. Think Teach for America for journalists. A program where talented early career journalists spend a year or two reporting in local communities, covering the topics that we all care about: water quality, schools, local government.
We need this new generation especially to stand up and challenge the assaults on the cornerstone of our democracy, a free press, and to be advocates for the truth, to be practitioners of ground truth.
This is a call to public service to do local reporting… to go out and trust the human readings, go out and get the ground truth. Go out and Report for America.