2017 just may be the year that the Information Age became the Commentary Age.
We saw fear rationalized by blatant misinformation campaigns; history re-examined and weaponized to fit convenient narratives. Be it in politics or popular culture, it became acceptable to seek out and believe only a version of reality that justified your own created truth.
It would be easy to blame technology alone for this giant shift in cultural perspective. The recent flood of fake news and alternative facts was born out of programmatically-determined website traffic (the full extent of which we are only starting to grasp). But we must also look at how we are training both media consumers and media creators if we are to understand the reality of this new Commentary Age.
In our move to personalize everything – from medicine to fitness to learning – we discovered how to personalize facts. The inherent tension between free press and budding technology has allowed for specialized websites and fringe ideas alike to find equal footing on the web. But this shift changed not only the way we think about facts; it changed the way we ingest commentary. It has allowed sliced commentary to become an adequate replacement for comprehensive conversation and debate.
In the most dangerous of ways it has allowed elected officials and people down the street to use digital commentary – and not hard evidence – to speak to their abilities and success.
The success of a free press is determined by how well it disseminates both facts and commentary. And the success of a true democracy is determined by how well it prepares citizens to ingest facts and distribute educated commentary about their perspective into this free press.
However, we rarely place a premium on such success. In fact, we do not teach Americans to think critically about the facts and commentary they see on varies screens throughout the day.
To our determinant, we don’t place a premium on teaching people to be reporters.
But we should be training everyone to think like a reporter. More than any other field, reporters are trained in the science of investigation and the art of communication (two skills required in many fields). Reporters seek out the truth through access; they are challenged to talk to others both to corroborate facts and to elaborate on their myopic view of something. Reporters must understand human interaction, nuanced language, emotional intelligence – all while delivering the public the most pressing events and issues of the day. They live on the line between science and art, knowing that quality communication fails if it is either too interpretive or too rigid.
The best reporters provide balanced facts and allow the public the space with which to comment on the new reality. Regardless of profession or level of education, the American public would do well to be trained in the art and science of being a reporter. We should challenge people to listen more, seek truth, and communicate well across digital platforms and during in-person interactions.
We should be reporters in our daily lives, prepared to seek clarity in numbers and words. We should be trained to see past partisan and search to reflect quality arguments and precision in all things that we do.