From the Director:
Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, the information we consume sustains the health of the body politic. Good information nourishes democracy; bad information poisons it. The mission of the Shorenstein Center is to support and protect the information ecosystem. This means promoting access to reliable information through our work with journalists, policymakers, civil society, and scholars, while also slowing the spread of bad information, from hate speech to “fake news” to all kinds of distortion and media manipulation.
The public square has always had to contend with liars, propagandists, dividers, and demagogues. But the tools for creating toxic information are more powerful and widely available than ever before, and the effects more dangerous. How our generation responds to threats we did not foresee, fueled by technologies we have not contained, is the central challenge of our age. How do journalists cover the impact of misinformation without spreading it further? How do technology companies, with no experience in exercising editorial judgment and a commercial interest against trying, manage their vast responsibilities? How do policymakers map the boundaries in media territory that is foreign to them? As news deserts grow across the country, how do we ensure that people have access to information they can trust? What does a “free press” do if its business model collapses?
This year, our faculty, fellows, researchers, students, and staff have explored these questions and more, at a time when newsrooms are under daily assault and one institution after another sees public faith dissolving. A new finding from a Pew Research Center study leapt out at me: “Indeed, more Americans view made-up news as a very big problem for the country than identify terrorism, illegal immigration, racism, and sexism that way. Additionally, nearly seven in ten U.S. adults (68%) say made-up news and information greatly impacts Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and roughly half (54%) say it is having a major impact on our confidence in each other.”
In the report that follows, we share the work we’ve done to help restore that confidence. It is not enough to analyze the problem; this is a moment for action and accountability, for a commitment to solving problems that in many cases didn’t exist five years ago. Our faculty and fellows are briefing members of Congress and their staffs on how to regulate technology companies; researching media manipulation and training journalists and scholars in how to fight it; analyzing institutional anti-racism initiatives to assess their effectiveness; tracking how extremism and disinformation spread online; developing tools to help newsrooms engage audiences; and providing journalists and policymakers access to top academic research in comprehensible form to buttress the bridge between theory and practice.
Through our regular convenings and major events such as the T.H. White and Salant Lectures and the Goldsmith awards, we highlight the work of both journalists and top academics who are operating on the front lines of this new information battlefield. At a time when the core values of a free press are under threat, the Center collects and shares the best ideas for protecting essential democratic principles.
“The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy,” Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.” She was talking about our physical environment, but much the same could be said for our information environment at this moment of constant disruption. Protecting that environment requires commitment, creativity, and collaboration. As a research center, we welcome the best thinkers and practitioners in media, law, technology, politics, policy, and social enterprise. I am grateful for the vision and energy that Nicco Mele brought to this task in his years as director, with the encouragement of a superb Advisory Board. The Center was also extremely fortunate last summer to welcome Setti Warren as Executive Director; every day I am impressed by how the skills he honed in law school, the navy, the White House, the campaign trail, and the Newton mayor’s office serve the mission of this center and the success of its talented staff. This work would not be possible without the faith and support of the Shorenstein family, our advisors and donors, and our partners and collaborators across Harvard and beyond as we work to make sure the best ideas, the most promising solutions, and the most valuable insights are shared by all those working for democracy’s renewal.