In Pursuit Of Facts, Empathy, Depth And Diversity

Nov 1, 2017

It’s been an interesting time to work in public media. On the up side, there’s been an amazing renaissance in the oral tradition.

Podcasts, public radio and other on-demand audio platforms have attracted new and younger audiences for the art of audio storytelling, fueling a surge in the innovative and creative work of artists, journalists and audio producers. 

On the down side, a free, open and functioning press and the integrity of our entire media system has been under constant attack. Real “fake news” amplified by manipulated social media algorithms has become a powerful propaganda tool and labeling real news as “fake news” has become a tactic for obfuscating politicians to discredit any story they deem unfavorable. Citizens are left wondering what to believe.

Against this backdrop, many of us who have dedicated our life’s work to developing and sustaining a dynamic public media system see a compelling new opportunity to fulfill our mission and serve society. In order to seize this opportunity we’ll need to stay true to our founding tenets while leveraging the power of emerging technologies and embracing fresh voices within our enterprise.

Here are some of the principles that I believe should guide our future:

Facts matter. Without a shared set of facts from which we can formulate our own viewpoints, we cannot even begin to have a meaningful debate about important issues. A recent example of public radio’s commitment to this value is the This American Life profile of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos which disproved claims made by many high-ranking education leaders that DeVos had “never set foot in a public school.” 

We must continue to engage the important issues of our day on intellectually honest grounds.

In fact, she spent 5 years mentoring an inner city Latina student at Burton Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Another example of public radio’s commitment to fact-based reporting is the recent calm, concisely reasoned Twitter explanation from NPR News detailing why it was factually correct when it reported that the proposed Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill would not ensure coverage for pre-existing conditions following criticism from one of the bill’s co-authors, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy. We must continue to engage the important issues of our day on intellectually honest grounds.

We must embrace empathy over outrage. Outrage is such a satisfying human emotion. We get indignant, self-righteous and rant. And, man, does it feel good. Far less satisfying is actively listening to someone from a different walk of life—someone with whom we may disagree. But it is these acts of empathy that bridge our differences and bring us closer together, as humans and as communities. We shouldn’t seek opposing viewpoints that simply echo the narrow talking points of political parties. Rather we should find community based stories that provide real examples of real lives, often revealing hidden truths that connect us to our neighbors, stimulate constructive civic discourse and advance solutions to community problems.

We must prioritize depth over speed. Since CNN invented the 24-hour news cycle more than 35 years ago, the pace of news has accelerated at warp speed. We now live in a time when events break simultaneously around the globe, where 140 character Tweets are the preferred communication tool of the U.S. President and where journalists have 3 seconds to capture someone’s attention. We need to trust our audience to be interested in deep, meaningful stories that provide context and are filled with nuance and shades of gray. And, we need to live up to our promise to create compelling local, national and international stories that are worthy of their time.

We must remain humble, honest and curious – and foster diversity. In order to attract new audiences we must dare to understand and tell the stories of people different from ourselves. To accomplish this we must genuinely be interested in people’s unique stories, avoiding the stereotypical narratives that write themselves. These stories give our audience a window into a world that can broaden their perspective so that they can better understand and value the diverse range of human culture and experience.

As we embark on the ambitious task of fulfilling these values, we’re honored that you’ll be joining us for the journey. We never forget that you make our work possible.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.