A major contributor to the success of Donald Trump in the 2016 election was the level of social distrust, fed by the fragmentation of media and decline of credible, reliable journalism. Citizens simply don’t know what information they can trust–which sources are reputable and which are peddling disinformation–so they choose the “facts” that are most congruent with their pre-existing beliefs.
The problem isn’t limited to media sources.
A recent article by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center points to a phenomenon that has been depressingly obvious to academics and others engaged in legitimate research.
Think tanks often provide valuable and impartial policy research. But entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.
The article provides journalists with tips on how to ferret out conflicts of interest or other indicators of bias; its list of appropriate inquiries will be helpful not just to reporters, but to citizens who are increasingly unsure of who and what to believe:
- Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom.
- To find out more about an executive listed on the board, read his or her firm’s public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Our accounting tip sheet should help.
- Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding.
- Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality?
- Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence.
- What is its budget? Has the budget changed radically in recent years?
- Does it have a conflict of interest policy?
- Look up the address. Is it a street address or a post office box? Google either: Is it shared with other organizations? Do they share a suite, a phone? What is their relationship?
I have frequently written about the “wild west” that is our current media landscape. This article reminds us that it isn’t only conspiracy websites, social media “memes,” or the growing difficult of distinguishing satire from reporting that should worry us.
We have gone way beyond the days of the National Enquirer (my favorite headline ever: “Sadaam and Osama’s Gay Wedding”). Today’s inability to know which information resources are trustworthy and which are not is poisoning not only our ability to conduct fact-based discussions, but our willingness to trust our social and governmental institutions.
Social capital–the connections we have with others–requires general social trust. The continuing erosion of that trust threatens those human connections, not to mention our ability to see ourselves as members of a democratic polity.
I simply don’t know how we fix this and still maintain fidelity to the First Amendment.