A man sells newspapers in Lima, Peru, July 25.

Why old-style news is new again

The pandemic has forced Americans to turn to traditional media and away from “iffy” sources. This truth-seeking could last longer than the disaster driving it.

From plagues to earthquakes, disasters often push people in wholly new directions. Will the current pandemic be the same? An inkling of a shift comes from a new study at the University of Michigan. It found more Americans have turned to mainstream news sites since the COVID-19 crisis began. They have shied away from what researchers call “iffy” sources on social media.

This “flight to quality,” as the study puts it, is more than a desire for truth about ways to avoid personal harm. People are also worried about the virus’s impact on the world. Others have had their beliefs about nature, God, or humanity challenged. Trained journalists in traditional media have provided access to practical advice as well as broad meaning.

The study’s conclusion: “It appears people turn to tried and true sources of information” to navigate through a life-and-death situation and all its uncertainties.” But, adds Paul Resnick, one of the researchers, “It will be interesting to see whether this ‘flight to quality’ is short-lived.”

A crisis like a pandemic can quickly restore people’s trust in their ability to know the truth – and to seek out trustworthy news. Traffic to traditional media outlets has surged since the pandemic began. And social media platforms like Facebook are culling disinformation about COVID-19 from their sites.

This truth-seeking is a frequent reaction after a disaster. When three earthquakes and a tsunami killed tens of thousands in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755, the enormity of the devastation triggered a revolution among Europeans about the role of God in such events. People began to develop critical thinking skills and the tools for fact-checking. This gave them the information and the mental acuity to put disasters in context.

In all aspects of life, truth can be liberating. “It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men’s opinions; and that light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties,” wrote 17th-century philosopher John Locke.

The pandemic has turned much of modern life upside down. But it has also unleashed a search for sustaining truths that can outlast the crisis. Old-fashioned journalism can’t uncover all the answers. Yet with more people seeking fact over fiction, the truth will win in many ways.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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