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- Conclusion and Call to Action

Democracy and the news media are inextricably intertwined, and it is clear that both are in crisis. American democracy suffers not only from a decline of trust in the “other” to govern, but also from a breakdown of our shared concept of citizenship.

The news media face increasing skepticism based on perceptions of bias. Social media are being criticized for insufficiently restricting material noxious to the well-being of the democracy. And local media, while more trusted than “the media” as a whole, are struggling with economic shortfalls that challenge their ability to serve democratic aims.

The 50-year trend of declining trust is now even more pronounced amid increased political polarization, a shortage of quality local information and the rapid change in technology, altering how Americans experience the news.

THIS IS A WATERSHED MOMENT.

This Commission envisions a 21st century American democracy that can work at all levels— if we act now. Therefore, the Commission calls for news organizations, media creators and distributors, government, political, business and nonprofit leaders, and every American citizen to do what they can to restore trust in our democracy.

To help guide us all in this journey, the Commission identifies the following values as necessary components of a functioning democracy.


RESPONSIBILITY. It is every citizen’s responsibility to become literate in civics and to be able to use any medium to access, evaluate and create information. It is the duty of every elected official to foster the positive values of the republic and to resist the temptation to exacerbate polarization, tribalism and discord. It is all business executives’ responsibility to serve the broader democracy in the course of conducting their businesses, and to care for their various stakeholders, including, where applicable, their readers, viewers and users. It is every journalist’s responsibility to write the truth and to provide proper context for facts. And it is the government’s duty to preserve the principles and underlying goals of the Constitution.
FREE EXPRESSION. A basic assumption running throughout this report is the belief that a free society must allow for and protect open and free expression. But speech that is protected under the First Amendment is not always responsible. Those who create and those who distribute information need to attend to both values.
TRANSPARENCY. The Commission believes that transparency breeds trust. We urge all media entities to be radically transparent so that users can understand how they select stories to cover, what sources they are using and how they reach their conclusions. This applies to newspaper stories, to news on cable and broadcast TV and to news feeds on social networks. Transparency extends as well to the technology companies that distribute news and to government organizations and officials.
LITERACY. Having a literate public is critical to the health of the body politic. Abundant information does no good if users are not capable of using that information effectively. In the 21st century, literacy has multiple dimensions: news, media, digital and civic.
INNOVATION. The Commission recognizes that innovation is a continual imperative for both technology and journalism, and that new challenges and new opportunities to respond to them are inevitable. The news business has endured significant disruption. Some of that was self-inflicted, the result of a lack of foresight. Innovation in technology and business models can reinvigorate the news ecosystem in many ways. The Commission suggests a number of areas where innovation will be particularly useful to rebuilding trust, and it calls for more research into ways that technology can serve rather than undermine this goal.
DIVERSITY. Inclusion of diverse stakeholders serves all. Gender and racial diversity are always important in remaining relevant to a broad public and in being fair to all audiences. Rural residents and people from disadvantaged communities need their voices and perspectives heard as well. In calling for greater diversity, the Commission focused not only on journalistic and technological businesses but also on educational institutions and on efforts to bridge the political divide in this country. The concept of diversity also applies to the type of information one receives and the need for those providing it to help individuals escape from their echo chambers.

Building on these values, the Commission calls for a range of efforts involving all stakeholders at all levels.

  • For information and news producers, the Commission advocates becoming far more transparent—what we call “radical transparency”—and engaged with their audiences. By reflecting more of America in the newsrooms and in stories, in spokespeople and in ownership, the media become more accessible. These measures renew trust.

    We also call for new resource-sharing partnerships among journalistic entities—local-local, local-regional and local-national—in order to provide more robust news coverage. And the Commission strongly supports expanding efforts to find sustainable business models for journalism rooted in the civic missions of holding power accountable and informing the electorate. Innovative funding approaches such as crowdsourcing can apply to for-profits as well as nonprofits. But the Commission specifically calls on philanthropic and other sources to expand support of nonprofit news operations that cover state and local issues.
  • For news and information distributors on the internet, such as search engines and social media networks, the Commission recognizes that the online ecosystem has grown and evolved rapidly and is now contending with issues based on that growth. In particular, these companies, which grew from small startups to global enterprises in a remarkably short period of time, are now facing a unique set of challenges concerning trust of their users. To restore trust, the Commission believes that the principle of transparency should apply to the entire online media ecosystem. It calls for information and data collectors, including information platforms, to adopt a fiduciary responsibility to their users, assuming a duty of care for the personal information they gather.

    And the Commission urges even more innovation in the field. It particularly calls for technologists to collaborate on devising metrics to measure healthy civic dialogue online, on building tools to track the spread of disinformation, and on giving users the ability to understand and to modify how personalized algorithms work. It also recommends allowing users to reclaim their data and transfer it to other social networks if they wish.
  • For political leaders and individual American citizens, having a basic understanding of our Constitution, our system of government and our Bill of Rights is critical for our nation’s survival. The Commission recognizes that in order to reclaim a shared sense of citizenship, individuals must have both the capacity and the opportunities to do so. Thus it calls for greater civic literacy, with new requirements that our youth graduate from high school with a knowledge of this nation’s history and governance mechanisms. High school graduates should have the knowledge to pass the American citizenship test. We recommend, as well, moonshot-like goals for schools and others to teach new-media literacy skills.

Finally, the Commission urges increased efforts to establish a year of voluntary national service for all Americans. And it recommends convening a series of local community dialogues that bridge racial, ethnic, gender, generational, class and geographical differences. Not only are schools and libraries appropriate venues for these efforts, but there is value in supporting these vital and trusted local institutions through such an initiative.

This Commission began, and now ends, with the current crisis in trust. We, as individual citizens of a great nation, need to take measures now, not next year, to maintain the democracy that has developed over nearly two and a half centuries. We need to maintain the free and open press that undergirds American democracy, and to catalyze the citizenry at all levels to engage in their own governance in whatever ways they choose.

This report comes after a year and a half’s effort and is issued in early 2019. But the crisis we address is not a static issue that has a one-time solution. It is an ongoing problem that will require continued attention and action. This report is only a beginning point—a compass, not a map.

 
 
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