How can we reach the unreachable

How can we reach the unreachable?

I have a hard time understanding people who favour conspiracies and outright lies over journalism and facts. The problem with understanding “the others” probably explains why society is becoming so polarised.

In a post-truth society, the fundamental assumption for journalism no longer holds. We’re used to thinking that independent, fact-based journalism, practiced in accordance with professional codes of ethics and made accessible to all, defines its social mission. So far, the question of what to do when a substantial part of the population actively opts to turn away from journalism hasn’t been taken seriously.

This phenomenon has long since acquired an academic term which the Oxford Dictionaries selected as Word of the Year in 2016: post-truth; other variations include post-truth politics, post-truth society and post-truth democracy. A post-truth society is one where the political debate is based on appeals to emotion rather than on a reliance on facts. Claims are repeated despite being refuted, and a substantial part of the population don’t care about the truth. The emotional affiliation to one’s own tribe – us against them – takes precedence over everything else.

I can understand that people who are going through a life crisis make irrational choices that can harm them. And I can understand that people who find themselves in a difficult life situation can isolate themselves and withdraw from the rest of the world. What’s harder to grasp is how large groups of people actively and persistently turn away from the facts and from the institutions whose task it is to uncover and communicate those facts; and this applies not only to journalism but also to providers of research and statistics. It’s also really hard to understand that voters don’t care whether a head of state tells the truth or lies.

How can we reach the unreachable?

It’s easy to cite USA as an example; maybe too easy. Yet after four years with Donald Trump as president, certain things have become so visible in the United States that they can serve as examples of political, social and psychological phenomena that will have a lot of potential in other countries, too. When the Trump administration first talked about “alternative facts” to legitimise verifiable lies, I found it comical. I was less amused when I realised that many Trump supporters couldn’t care less whether the president spoke the truth or not. This was a reality I simply couldn’t get my head around – and still can’t. Once the surprise at these trends in US politics subsided, we took comfort in the thought that at least this would never happen in Scandinavia. If a prime minister of Norway had dished up mere a fraction of Trump’s lies, that person would be forced to resign, I think. Journalism and facts will likely continue to hold a strong position in our countries.

But we don’t have to go further than to Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic to find countries with divisions similar to those in the United States, and perhaps with similar potential for a post-truth wave. Like the United States, the clearest dividing line in these countries runs between urban and rural areas. We can see the same dividing line clearer than ever in Norway, too, following the general election in 2021. But surely there’s no potential for post-truth enclaves in this prosperous and egalitarian society?

Even more alarming are the efforts of authoritarian states to control the information fed to their citizens

Access to independent and verifiable journalism in a diverse media landscape doesn’t simply come automatically. Factors that govern this access can be both economic and political, and in poor countries with huge economic disparities, quality journalism is the reserve of the elite. Even more alarming are the efforts of authoritarian states to control the information fed to their citizens and to replace independent journalism with propaganda. In a post-truth society, these explanations for a flawed understanding of reality have no validity; it is the citizens’ free and independent choices that lead to journalism being rejected. The same phenomenon could probably be seen in parts of the German population in the years following World War I, and other historical parallels may also exist. What’s new is that the social and psychological conditions for this phenomenon are sustained in the information flow in social networks controlled by algorithms.

In an attempt to make sense of this, I believe the reason why the emotions of a relatively large group of people prevail over facts may lie in political developments. The social elite have “sold” globalisation as a system without losers. Free trade and competition without barriers have led to global economic growth we would not have seen in a more protectionist world order. But behind the big numbers and principles, little attention has been paid to the downside and to those who will be worse off, especially those who lose their jobs or whose wages fall behind compared to the rest of society.

In a binary public debate, reported and amplified by many media, you are viewed as either for or against globalisation. Those who believe that globalisation is good, but that more work is needed to find solutions for those who are left out, are largely ignored. As is often the case, polarisation and the need for snappy simplification mean that those views are seen in terms of black or white.

Donald Trump is no longer alone in dismissing news stories he doesn’t like as “fake news.”

In the Nordic countries, it is interesting to see how Denmark’s Social Democracy party has put anti-globalisation, a highly restrictive immigration policy and a critical stance towards technology on its platform, all of which are rather out of character for traditional social democrats. Since this change in course, the party has gained a dominant position in Danish politics.

Along with the other more formal institutions in Danish society, editorial desks and journalism in general are perceived as an institution of power. When trust in that power erodes among those who feel overlooked and “sacrificed”, journalism gets caught in the undertow. The term “mainstream media” is meant to brand the media as the hangers-on of the powers that be. Donald Trump is no longer alone in dismissing news stories he doesn’t like as “fake news”; the term has now gone viral.

These attempts to see connections and to reason, amount to nothing more than pure speculation. “På seg selv kjenner man ingen andre” (an inversion of the phrase “It takes one to know one”) is the aptly chosen title of a book I read a long time ago. It’s a useful insight. When you live in one of the most privileged societies in one of the most privileged corners of the world, you can easily overestimate your ability to understand the rest of the world. One interesting question to ask ourselves occasionally is: when was the last time I interacted with a representative sample of the population in my own country for long enough to grasp what was going on?

Nordic media organisations should also discuss whether we have sufficient presence in potentially post-truth environments.

Once post-truth environments evolve, it’s presumably extremely difficult for journalism to regain entry. The question is whether journalism can do more to help avoid such a collapse of democracy, and I think we have some options here. The critical one is to work even harder to bring those who are left out into the public eye, not only by taking an occasional peek in a feature article, but also by turning the problems faced by these groups into a more commonplace aspect of political journalism. The US media were accused of not having understood the underlying currents in American society that allowed Trump to come to power in 2016. The same criticism was levelled at the British media in connection with Brexit in the same year.

Nordic media organisations should also discuss whether we have sufficient presence in potentially post-truth environments.
Are we capable of distinguishing between xenophobia and racism in our journalistic coverage?
Are we capable of distinguishing between what sometimes is poorly articulated frustration and anger on the one hand and legitimate concerns and fears on the other?
Do we listen or do we judge? Do we exclude or do we include?

Do we have control of our personal prejudices? Any attempt to understand may be based on a flawed analysis, because the distance is too great and the knowledge too small. All the same, it’s better to try to understand, to make mistakes without fear of losing face, and to listen, learn and try again than to turn away from a part of the population we don’t understand.

Einar Hålien

Einar Hålien
Group Editor and Senior Public Policy Advisor
Years in Schibsted: 24