“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Those were the resolute words of the wheelchair-bound man who was taking office as president in 1933. He was elected in the depths of the Depression, with millions unemployed and the economy in collapse.
However, we don’t often hear the rest of the sentence from that famous inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It has relevance today for journalists and how we do our work.
FDR made clear that the fear he was talking about was a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
A fearful nation. I have felt that “unjustified terror” all around me since returning to the US after many years abroad. Some of this fear has been driven by the pandemic. But I am struck by how quickly the political spin doctors transform every issue into an “us” vs. a frightening “them”. They feed our anxieties and trigger us to fear strangers and fear our neighbors. No wonder more people are buying firearms for protection.
Promoters of terror
The two political parties have shamelessly exploited the economic and health crises to promote the kind of “unjustified terror” that FDR described almost 90 years ago. They promote outright lies and peddle disinformation. Then, as now, this win-at-all-cost strategy has paralyzed national politics. The extreme ends of the two political parties seem determined to burn down democracy rather than compromise, cooperate, and solve problems together.
With our help in the media, the extremists focus on winning the news cycle rather than working on long-term solutions to all the problems ordinary people face around education of their children, health care, job security, safety, the environment, social justice, and so on. Fear of losing points in the latest poll pushes leaders to govern in response to the whims of social media memes.
We journalists often have fallen into the traps of the fear-mongers. For digital media and cable TV in particular, there are financial incentives for attracting attention with sensational headlines, outrageous accusations, and misleading images. (We may in fact be exaggerating the power of media manipulators and disinformation spreaders, as I wrote about last week.)
What can journalists do?
For one thing, we can avoid the trap of framing all debates as a potential apocalypse with one of two extreme outcomes: either a fascist, right-wing takeover of government or a socialist, left-wing dictatorship. Do you think I’m exaggerating? This kind of hysterical tone is all over cable TV and social media. Stories of imminent disaster generate revenue in the attention economy.
For another, we journalists can avoid the nationalization of politics and remind our audiences that the impact of politics is local. In his book Politics is for Power, Eitan Hersh warns of “political hobbyism,” in which “we mainly ‘engage’ by consuming politics as if it’s a sport or a hobby.” The hobbyists “tweet and post and share” and “crave outrage,” but they don’t always vote or get involved with local politics.
Hersh argues that “Instead, we should be spending the same number of hours building political organizations, implementing a long-term vision for our city or town, and getting to know our neighbors, whose votes will be needed for solving hard problems.” Real power can be exerted from the local level, Hersh says.
Our better angels
A powerful force of fear-mongering comes from the pernicious algorithms of the tech platforms: Facebook, Google, and the like. They are designed, like nicotine, to be addictive. They play on our basic human need to be alert to danger. They feed our darker angels.
However, we journalists can counter this negative addiction with an equally powerful positive force: human decency. By nature, we humans are also attracted to people who are honest and trustworthy, especially in a crisis.
We in the news media can offset the fear-mongering and inspire trust with a radical transparency:
- by making our mission public service, not just in words but in practice
- by providing the names, biographies, and contact information of owners, directors, editors, and journalists
- by revealing potential conflicts of interest to our audiences
- by being honest and transparent about our own motives and biases
- by taking the time to get the story right rather than getting it first
- by providing context, understanding, and solutions, not just accusation and blame
- by correcting and clarifying errors swiftly and thoroughly
- by admitting what we know about an issue and what we don’t know yet
- by not claiming to publish the truth but facts that might bring us closer to seeing the truth
Let’s return to FDR’s address for a moment. Immediately after the famous quote above, he added:
“In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
The keywords here are “a leadership of frankness and vigor.” They imply an ethic that should inspire us as journalists to confront the power wielded by fear-mongers. During our current moment of crisis, we need the kind of resolute optimism of an FDR to be leaders in finding solutions not just making accusations. We need to trust rather than fear our neighbors.
Earning the trust of the public will help ensure that quality journalism–journalism that serves multiple stakeholders, not just those with political and financial power–can survive and thrive. Because trust is a form of social capital. That social value can translate into economic value. And that is journalism that people will be willing to pay for and support over the long term.
More from The Fix: How publisher credibility creates economic value