As print circulation has declined across the board, social media consumption of news has increased to levels unmatched in legacy journalism. Suddenly, the world is at your fingertips with a swipe and a tap.
Murray, who also served as president of the Pew Research Center from 2012-14, referenced a particularly telling survey conducted during his tenure. The survey revealed that 50 percent of Americans with online access get their news from Facebook.
“No other news organization in the history of the country has ever had that kind of penetration,” Murray said, the weight of the data still resonating in his voice.
For half of the country, news consumption has become news by algorithm, a homogenized script of political echoes and choir responses. There are no fact-checkers or editors here with questions about objectivity, fairness and accuracy.
Artificial intelligence meets natural selection. Which news will you choose?
“I don’t know that we’ll reach a point where there’s one news source that everyone accepts,” Murray said. “But I do believe we have to somehow get back to where there are certain facts everyone accepts. If we can’t get back to that, I fear our democratic society can’t work.”
While some wondered if PBS, NPR or The New York Times could emerge as a unifying force, Murray didn’t think it was likely. All three news organizations have a core audience that tends to be “very coastal, very left-leaning, very liberal and rejected by conservatives,” he said.
According to Pew survey results, The Wall Street Journal has “the most balanced level of respect on both sides of the great divide,” Murray said, but it’s still a big ask to expect any organization to be the standard bearer for consensus.
Despite the partisan pollution choking our devices, Murray said, there is evidence of hope ahead. He pointed to this fall’s United Nations Youth Climate Summit in New York City as one example. The event drew young people from around the world, including 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who spoke truth to power about climate change.
“We live in a time when the voices of people—the voices of students—are more powerful than they’ve ever been,” Murray said. “If you look at the youth summit on climate change, it was a really significant event. We need to have the same degree of alarm about the deterioration of truth and the deterioration of respect for facts in society.”
It doesn’t help matters that media companies continue to struggle with their business models in the absence of reliable, sustainable revenue sources. Murray said 80–90% of annual increases in digital advertising are funneled to Facebook and Google, with the rest to Apple and Amazon. Shrinking bottom lines lead to shrinking staffs and shrinking coverage.
Paywalls and digital subscriptions may be distasteful to some, but they are an economic reality for today’s media companies. The downside, Murray said, is that paying for news limits access to information as well as democracy.
Murray declined to bring President Trump into the discussion about facts, but he did acknowledge Trump’s influence. And his live-wire Twitter account. As of October, Trump had 66.4 million followers—just outside the top-10 global accounts, according to brandwatch.com.
“He has a peculiar attitude toward facts,” Murray succinctly acknowledged. “But I think the problems we have as a society predated his election and will continue long after he’s gone.”
“I’ve always thought there was an overexaggerated intersection of politics and business, but in the era of Trump, you really can’t say that,” Contiliano said, pointing to a screen dedicated to Trump’s tweets—scrolls and scrolls of them. “You see Amazon there. And he has no problem commenting on GM and the strike this fall,” Contiliano said. “When you get to something where he’s tweeting about a company, you can see the impact on the market immediately.”
Roush, whose background is in business journalism, said career opportunities are booming. Bloomberg News employs 1,100 journalists in New York City alone.
“Business journalism is the last growth area of journalism. Big news organizations like The Wall Street Journal, CNBC and Bloomberg have been adding jobs in the past few years,” Roush said. “While you hear about newspapers cutting jobs, in business journalism, there are plenty of jobs available—and they’re good-paying jobs. Here at Quinnipiac, we just need to start exposing our students to the Bloombergs of the world, the Fortune magazines of the world.”
The families on Outlook Drive in suburban Pittsburgh don’t get the same press coverage they once did. The boy with the notepad and scoops left a long time ago to make a name for himself and his facts in New York City and Washington, D.C. These days, Murray lives in Fairfield County.
While most of his audience showed up for a lecture about the death of truth, Murray finished his talk with the story arc of a revival-tent preacher.
It turns out he’s actually hopeful about journalism. “Ultimately, I’m optimistic because I believe it matters,” Murray said. “We are in a very bad moment in terms of respect for facts and respect for the truth, but I do see signs that people are starting to get it. I’m raising this issue because I think it’s important that we all recognize that it’s important. If we do that, we can begin to get to a better place.”