Public trust in facts has been on the decline for about two decades, and it’s taken a toll. Americans no longer agree on a common set of facts. Many can’t tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, and a growing number no longer trust experts or institutions that used to be the source of basic information. These trends together have led to an epistemic crisis known as truth decay.
Truth decay refers to the diminishing role that facts, data and analysis now have in American society. Researchers Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich at the non-partisan RAND Corporation coined the phrase in their 2018 report to explain what’s behind the erosion of civil and political discourse in our country.
The facts are still out there, but we’re not all seeing the same ones. Thanks to algorithms, many people see only information that is curated for them.
Kavanagh and Rich say when you combine algorithms with cognitive bias, the rise in social media, political and economic polarization and a lack of media literacy training, you get a profound distrust of what used to be accepted facts.
Although this crisis may seem unprecedented, truth decay is not a new phenomenon. In the 1890s, so-called yellow journalism emerged as newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst tried to outdo each other with outrageous, sensationalist headlines to increase sales. Pulitzer also charged just two cents for his paper, New York World, to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Both strategies worked and by 1885, the New York World sold more than one million copies a day, the highest-circulation newspaper in New York, thanks to stories based on unnamed sources, rumors and scandals.
Pulitzer and Hearst also covered Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain and inflamed anti-Spanish sentiment by reporting unfounded rumors that Spain attacked and sank the American warship, USS Maine, in Havana’s harbor in 1898. Soon after, the Spanish-American War broke out. Although the tabloids did not cause the war, Hearst is known to have said, “You furnish the pictures; I’ll provide the war!”
That was one war too many for most Americans. The public soon tired of all of this sensationalist news and stopped buying newspapers that valued profits and dishonesty over accuracy. By the turn of the century, Pulitzer was said to be haunted by his “yellow sins” and returned New York World to its watchdog journalism roots with stories that exposed fraud, corruption and social problems. (Among Pulitzer’s other efforts to redeem himself, he founded the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in 1912 and endowed the Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in journalism.)
State courts also helped end this period of rumor and scandal-ridden stories by establishing a legal right to privacy, freeing people from “the prying eyes of yellow journalists and gossip-mongers.”
Here’s the point: Like today, people during this period were experiencing a change in the way information was consumed and shared. Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation spread without checks—until the public, news industry and courts all worked together to recalibrate the longstanding tension between quality journalism that serves the public and misleading information that racks up profits. This could be a blueprint to solve today’s variant of truth decay as well.
Yes, the digital revolution makes the 21st-century version of truth decay a much more challenging—and bigger– problem. Navigating this information ecosystem requires new core competencies to access, analyze and evaluate information. But like yellow journalism of the past, today’s truth decay is a systemic problem that will require many different solutions. The news media, public and the courts will again have a role to play, but this time, Kavanagh and Rich conclude we must also enlist research organizations, policymakers, the business community, and educators to reverse truth decay.
For starters, journalists can do more to re-establish trust in their work by pulling back the curtain to show people how news is produced. If, for example, people learn how reporters vet sources and verify information, they will have more confidence in the news media as an institution.
News consumers can also do their part by rejecting media outlets that serve up click-bait headlines, fact-checking information before they share it and supporting news sites that provide responsible journalism. Educators can teach students how to neutralize confirmation bias and algorithms that reinforce preexisting beliefs and limit what they see online.
Policymakers and the courts may also have to step in to modify the law known as Section 230 that protects online platforms from lawsuits because they are not considered publishers. Changes to this law could make tech companies more accountable for spreading disinformation, conduct that’s long overdue.
Although yellow journalism withered away 100 years ago, it may be much harder to move past truth decay this time. “My fear all along has been that what reverses truth decay is some kind of disaster,” said Kavanagh in a VOX interview. “What I don’t know is how severe that disaster would have to be.”