Why “information equity” matters.
An idea has been tugging at me for months now, one I’ve spent countless hours discussing and debating with leaders in marketing, media, and journalism. And as I often do, I’m turning to writing to see if I can push it into more concrete form. I’m literally thinking out loud here, but I won’t bury the lede: I believe it’s time for all major corporations – not just the companies that pushed for the #StopHateForProfit boycott – to call for a broader, more universal movement related to their marketing practices and their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Sustainability, and Governance (ESG) efforts.This isn’t about punishing platforms, rather it’s about reimagining our relationship to them, and shifting our focus to the externalities our collective dependance upon them has created in society – and for our clients’ bottom lines. For now, I’m calling the movement “Information Equity” – a rather dry and academic moniker, to be sure. Toward the end of this post, I’ll ask for your help in pushing the idea forward. But for now, let me explain what I’m on about.
Some years back I helped start a company called NewCo, an effort to identify and promote companies that view business as a force for good. The idea sprang from an observation that the most successful companies often were animated by a desire to make the world better in some measurable way. This idea of business as a force for good has found broad appeal in recent years, culminating in the Business Roundtable declaring a new definition of purpose for American companies. No longer would the true north of business be the maximization of profit for shareholders. In its place would now sit a new lodestar: “Creating an economy that serves all.”
It’s easy enough to dismiss such declaratives as lipstick on the soulless pig of capitalism, but these kind of statements shift societal expectations over time, and eventually they change outcomes as well. Large corporations are increasingly being held to account by employees, customers, and the communities they impact. It’s demonstrably true that business practices have changed in recent years. And the last nine months – replete with a global pandemic and a deadly serious racial reckoning – have deeply accelerated those changes. Driven by COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, and an impending climate disaster, “Corporate Social Responsibility” has now taken center stage.
Now that the klieg lights are on, the question rightly becomes: What will corporations do with the microphone?
It’d be tempting to claim victory by pointing to the change that’s already here. Less than a generation ago, it would have been corporate suicide to take a stance on charged issues like race, gender, or the environment. But today, the world’s largest advertiser – Proctor & Gamble – employs its marketing budgets to create and promote powerful films decrying systemic racial and gender inequality. The world’s largest money manager – BlackRock – has put climate change at the center of its investment and governance decisions. For each of these formerly third-rail issues – race, gender, climate – hundreds of major corporates have declared similar intentions.
But while race, gender, and environmental equity have become rallying cries for mainstream corporate America – and rightly so – there’s another fundamental human right I’d like to see taken up by our newly woke business leaders. This particular right – or its absence – drives society’s comprehension, education, discussion, debate and ultimately, society’s actions related to resolving historically intractable issues of human rights.
In short, if we are going to solve our largest problems, we must first solve society’s problem with the truth.
Over the past ten or so years, American society has lost its faith in a shared truth. We simply don’t believe the same things anymore. And in the battle to defend our particular versions of truth, we have badly weakened journalism – our historical institution of truth-telling. We’ve not simply undermined journalism’s economic models, but more importantly, we’ve marginalized its impact and primacy in helping us determine the facts upon which society determines progress. We have questioned journalism’s motives, its business models, and the social compact granting journalism the right to determine fact, establish reason, and debate course of action.
I am not arguing these questions should not be raised – journalism is imperfect at best. But in abandoning journalism, we might have forgotten a larger question: If a free and fair press is not the answer to finding our common truth then … what exactly is? Think for a moment on what might replace journalism in our society. You’ll likely find yourself in a rather dark mood.
Over centuries, we have built journalism as an institution of truth telling – in concert, in opposition, and even in cahoots with institutions of power in government, religion, and business. This truth-telling organ is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, and its record is both speckled and glorious. But it’s also the only private institution empowered by a Constitutional name check – in the First Amendment, at that. So as far as I’m concerned, if ever there was a purpose-driven business, it’s one built around a newsroom. The mission of a news business is to fulfill the right of the people to be informed by truth. To deliver as full and transparent an account of truth as is possible. To hold truth as a mirror to power. And to demand an accounting if, once put to power, those truths do not square with the powerful’s actions.
Without standard-bearers capable of this endless and grinding work, democracy is lost – and so are the economics dependent on democracy. Without access to high-quality news reporting, the citizens of this nation will make decisions based on rumor, bias, self-interest, and fear. If, for example, a sizeable goup of Americans fear the COVID vaccine because of a failure of our information ecosystem, the American economy will suffer for years as a result.
I’m all for Benkler’s concept of a “networked Fourth Estate” – that the rise of the Internet has added a multitude of actors – bloggers, non-profits, citizen journalists – to the category we might call “the press.” And the rise of social media has, indeed, given everyone with a voice an opportunity to find an audience. But we’ve failed to place guardrails around the institutional mechanisms which determine how these new voices are distributed in our society. At present, the inscrutable algorithms and powerful business models of our largest technology platforms determine the information diets of a growing majority of Americans. At present, these platforms have no incentive to change how they do business. That’s where corporations – and their advertising budgets – must come into play with a more long-term solution.
Quality journalism at scale is under extreme duress. Yes, the Times, the Post, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal have all experienced a renaissance in the past few years. But all you readers of long form journalism, you devourers of words by the thousand, you are not the citizens of whom I speak. Your information equities are not in peril, your privilege is intact.
What matters here is scale. Read Charlie Warzel or listen to Kevin Roose, and ponder the citizen who can’t afford (or simply doesn’t wish) to take their news from high-quality print outlets. When more than a hundred million Americans struggle to cover a $400 medical bill, society needs an advertising-supported model that brings quality information to the masses (this of course is Zuckerberg’s favorite defense for why Facebook is ad-driven, one of many examples of how the company has adopted the cloth of journalism without accepting its responsibilities). When the most convenient free service for news is Facebook, then Facebook will become America’s answer to news. As a result, tens of millions of our fellow citizens are caught in the jaws of systemic information bias and institutionally-driven information pollution. One-quarter of Americans believe the recent election was possibly stolen, and a full third of us believe that the new administration may well enslave children for sexual favors. We’re in the grip of an information-driven disease – an information pandemic – the cancerous externality of a society which has deemed the growth of our most profitable companies more important that the dissemination of fact-based information and truth.
So what is business going to do about it?
Boycotts are fine, but business must make combatting the lack of quality information in our society a primary and ongoing goal. Surely if corporate America can get comfortable with activism on behalf of racial, gender, and environmental equality, it can throw its support behind every citizen’s right to quality information.
But how? How might business lead when it comes to addressing this fundamental issue?
There are scores of ideas yet to be imagined, and plenty of think tanks, non-profits, and other organizations already working on important parts of this problem, including startups like NewsGuard and media organizations like the 4As’ Advertiser Protection Bureau and the WFA’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media. But for all its skill at communication, the media industry has been far too silent in advancing solutions. It was just last month – last month!! – that the Global Alliance for Responsible Media added “Misinformation” to its long list of “harmful content.”
That’s progress, but our economy – and our democracy – can’t wait any longer. The most important step we can take now is to declare information equity an issue worthy of support by the business community. Marketers must dedicate a small but substantial portion of their budgets – which in aggregate equate to hundreds of billions of dollars each year – to supporting the creation and distribution of quality journalism at every level of society. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about how this is possible in partnership with the scale, targeting, and efficiency that platforms unquestionably bring to our industry. It will mean that platforms, marketers, and media companies will have to renegotiate their approaches to doing business. But not only is that work possible, it’s also good for business results – and society at large.
The media industry helped to create this problem of misinformation – by funding the rise of platforms, by ignoring the externalities these platforms foisted onto society, and by growing addicted to the results the platforms delivered to our bottom lines. But if we don’t renegotiate the relationships between marketers, platforms, media companies and the audiences we all serve, how can we expect anything to change?
Just as the planet can no longer tolerate the externalities of an economy driven by carbon, and just as our society can no longer tolerate the externalities of a culture driven by institutional race- and gender-based injustice, we can no longer whistle past the graveyard of truth.
If you agree, please join me in an ongoing conversation. I hope this will be the first in a series of posts “thinking out loud” about the issues we face as a media community. My email is jbat @ therecount dot com – hit me up, and I’ll add you to an engaged community of agency leaders, marketing executives, media entrepreneurs, and others who are already exploring a path forward. I look forward to the dialog, and as always, thanks for reading.