What happens when mistrust wins — my speech at the Colombian national journalism prize
By Ethan Zuckerman
Nov 4 2016
I spent yesterday in Bogota, Colombia, as the invited guest of the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar, offering a speech on the future of civics and the future of journalism. It’s a wonderful event — roughly 1100 people came to celebrate Colombia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer prize. I had a great time meeting the amazing Colombian journalists who served as the jury for the award as well as the team behind the event.
My friends on the jury pointed out something that they found amazing — this year’s winners offered stories about the environment, gay adoption, teenage parties, sexual identity… and almost nothing about the country’s 52 year long civil war. As one of my friends put it, “Maybe we can now focus on the problems any normal nation has.” Fingers crossed that, despite the no vote on the peace deal with the FARC, this positive trend continues.
Here’s what I shared with the audience in Bogota:
I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a deep change that I think is occurring in the world we share. Since I’m a professor at MIT, you are probably expecting me to tell you about a technological shift — the rise of synthetic biology or of quantum computing. But please don’t worry — I don’t understand that stuff either. Instead, I’m here as a journalist and a publisher, and I want to talk about a social and political shift I’m seeing in my lab and in my reporting work. It’s a shift that helps explain what’s happened in recent events both in Colombia and in the US. And it’s a shift that’s changing what it means to be a journalist and what our industry needs to do.
I was last in Bogota in August, just three months ago. Talking to friends and colleagues, I felt the great hope many people had that the 52 year civil war might be coming to an end, that the amazing transformation of cities like Bogota and Medellin would become what Colombia was known for globally, instead of years of violence. I also got the strong sense that peace was hard, that achieving a solution that Colombians thought was fair and just was going to require much more than an agreement and a referendum.
In the wake of the vote on October 2, Colombia looks like a nation divided, with 49.8% voting sí and 50.2% voting no. I want to suggest that Colombia is divided in a much more serious way, between 62% who didn’t vote and 38% who did. The group that won in the referendum was not Uribe supporters, not those who wanted to see more FARC leaders prosecuted. Those who won the vote were the 62% who had so little faith in the democratic process that they didn’t vote.
It’s very fashionable to beat up on the people who didn’t vote — they were too lazy, they weren’t educated enough about the issues, it was raining and they didn’t care enough about their civic duty to go out and get wet. I want to suggest that it’s dangerous to dismiss this group as lazy or uneducated.
Let me give you an example from the United States. In our elections, we see a great difference in turnout between old people and young people — retired people vote at almost twice the rate of people in their twenties. People read these statistics and declare that we have a crisis in civics! Young people are so selfish, so obsessed with their phones and music and media that they aren’t paying any attention to the world around them.
But there’s other data that contradicts this. Young people in America are volunteering at higher rates than they ever have. Huge percentages of people are active online in political discussions about racism and about sexual harassment, writing online and sharing stories of their experiences. Most of my students aren’t going into politics or into government service, but they are starting businesses that have the twin goals of making money and of making social change, building products and services around alternative energy and organic farming. They may not be voting, but they are profoundly active in their communities and in civic life.
So what’s going on here? This isn’t a crisis in civics, it’s a crisis in confidence, specifically a crisis in confidence in institutions.