The very nature of news, as we know it, is changing.
The way stories and issues are being reported in the modern age has been unquestionably altered by the new media landscape – everything you see, every story you read or hear, the method in which it’s been constructed has been fundamentally altered. The most notable change to the way in which news content is determined and subsequently reported upon is the shift in focus from wider circulation and total sales of publications to the individual performance of every single post and issue, based upon online traffic. No longer do publishers need to wonder what the audience wants, what people are more likely to read – now they know. They have it listed and graphed out, fed through on constant stream of data from their websites and social media properties.
This shift, which has evolved slowly over time, has impacted upon the entire media landscape. In a report conducted by NewsWhip, Muckruck and Edelman Media looking at the state of media consumption in the modern age – which took in the perspectives of more than 250 working journalists – 76% of the respondents said they now feel more pressure to think about their story’s potential to get shared on social platforms. That figure’s both unsurprising and disturbing. Understandably, as marketing spend shifts online, more focus will be put on digital traffic numbers, which are boosted by links, shares and comments – the logic behind this makes sense. But it also changes the whole dynamic of the journalistic process.
Because here’s the thing: if clicks are the currency of success in journalism, then balance and accuracy will increasingly be the price.
Why is that, you ask? Because the modern journalist is being incentivized, more and more, to write content that will get shares, as opposed to content that will best represent the facts. And there’s often a big difference between the two.
The Science of Sharing
Social media sharing is generated by emotion. A study by The New York Times found that 68% of social media users share content to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about. In this sense, it’s not about the news content itself, it’s about how that news content reflects their personal beliefs and views, what it says about them. It’s no surprise then that an analysis of the top 100,000 most shared articles from across the web found that triggering emotional response was key to maximising content reach.
Source: Huffington Post
Emotion is a key driver of social sharing and distribution, however in order to generate emotion, you need to be producing content that elicits emotional response. The easiest way to do this, in a news sense, is to write more sensationalised headlines or take a divisive stance.
In terms of sensationalism, BuzzFeed is the poster child for this (though there are many others). BuzzFeed became known for listicles and clickbait headlines – “you won’t believe what happens next…” This type of content is rife across Facebook, people can’t help but click on those posts with headlines like “Which Ninja Turtle Would You be?” Articles like this get a quick laugh and they get shared so others can be in on the joke, and thus, they generate significant traffic despite being criticised as something of a cheap tactic.
But while sensationalism is a concern, of more concern in the wider shift is the focus on divisive content. In the case of divisive material, the social shares and discussion generated around controversial topics and opinions actually incentivizes journalists to fan the flames of such arguments – because the longer debate rages on, the more content people want to read. In this sense, rather than social media bringing us closer together through understanding, it actually might be pulling us further apart, solidifying barriers and opposition between different sides of these arguments. Fuelling divisiveness is really a core requirement for the modern media outlet, and we’re starting to see this more and more in news coverage.
Divide and Conquer
In July this year, Cecil the Lion was shot and killed by an American dentist in an illegal hunting incident. No doubt you’ve heard about this one, more than 2,100 articles about Cecil’s death have been posted to Facebook, where they’ve been shared more than 3.6 million times. Mentions of Cecil on Twitter peaked at 900 tweets per minute – the virality factor of this story was huge. So what did publishers do? They wrote about it, resulting in an inundation of content about the story. The sheer volume of content written about this story highlights the new media process and the way in which news stories are defined. In this case, the story sparked a strong emotional response – anger – and that lead to more people wanting to share because it enabled them to show something of themselves, to demonstrate that they were against this kind of behaviour by sharing it online.
In this example, the story wasn’t particularly divisive – the vast majority of people were against the actions of the dentist at the centre of the case – but there were still groups and community segments who supported his right to hunt, and the way in which he’d gone about it.
The dentist, Walter Palmer, has maintained all along that he did nothing wrong on this hunt – that he went along with a group of guides and killed the animal in a legal and approved way. Whether that’s true or not is impossible for us to judge, but even if this individual hunt was illegally conducted, more than 665 lions are killed in Africa each year as part of these trophy expeditions. So while this individual case is terrible, there are a further 664 like it – the reality of the situation is that Palmer got unlucky, by his or his guides’ doing, and killed the wrong lion. And he’s being demonized as a result.
But what about the hundreds of other hunters? Most of them have got off scott-free in this case. Palmer’s home has been vandalized, his dental practice smashed up, a wide array of death threats have been levelled upon him from across the world. Palmer’s likely never going to recover from this, and whether you agree with his actions or not, he is only one part of a larger problem.
But here’s the thing – would it be to publishers’ benefit to broadcast the full, unbiased details of the story and the wider issue, or would it generate more emotion, and subsequently, more social shares, if they fuelled the fire and sought to further demonize this one individual for the sake of clicks?
I’ll give you a hint – here’s the second most shared article on Walter Palmer, which has generated more than 242k social chares, according to BuzzSumo.
Do we really need to know five fast facts about Walter Palmer? Yes, he’s the individual in question in this case, and definitely, it’s a story in the public interest. But surely further exemplifying him can only inspire more anger focussed in his direction – surely it’s of more benefit to be discussing the wider implications of exotic animal hunts and how we can take action to stop them.
But it’s not in the publishers’ interests to do that. While I’m not criticising the individual outlets – and I’m not suggesting Palmer should be portrayed in a sympathetic light – the point here is that the modern media landscape incentivizes publications to fuel anger and hatred, to generate emotional response that, on a wider scale, is really only detrimental to society as a whole.
You could, of course, argue that that’s the way it’s always been, there’s always been more coverage of controversial content because it sells papers. And to a degree, you’d be right, but the problem with the new variation of this process is that in an environment where media outlets are desperate to hold online attention, it’s often the voices of most polarization, or divisive vocal minorities, that are being given a disproportionate share of the discussion. Because they’re opinion is controversial, and controversy drives clicks. Supporters will click in order to validate their viewpoint, while opponents will click just to shake their heads at the latest misrepresentation. But they’ll all click. The more divisive, the better, and in this sense, it’s in the interests of the media to publish more extreme, more argumentative views. Because they want the debate to continue. In doing this, publishers may also, inadvertently, skewing public opinion.
For example, in his post “The Toxoplasma of Rage”, Scott Alexander talked about the differences in coverage of two police killings in the US which highlighted, essentially, the same issue. The first was Eric Garner, a black man who was choked to death by police officers in NYC. The second was Michael Brown, a black man who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, sparking race riots and race-related angst across the entire nation. Both incidents happened within a month of each other.
In both cases police treatment of black people was brought into question, but the difference between the two was in opinion.
“A Pew poll found that of white people who expressed an opinion about the Ferguson case, 73% sided with the officer. Of white people who expressed an opinion about the Eric Garner case, 63% sided with the black victim.”
So while both highlighted the same issue, if you go with the theory of divisiveness fuelling increased social shares, the media coverage is likely to skew more towards the coverage of Ferguson over Eric Garner, even though they both highlight the same issue, right?
A Google News search for Eric Garner returns over 1.9m results:
The same search for Michael Brown? 71.5m – an increase in news coverage of more than 3,700%:
Even taking the other variables into account, like the resulting riots and the more common nature of the name ‘Michael Brown’, that’s a pretty big discrepancy. The Garner case simply didn’t inspire divisive emotion the way the Brown case did – it makes sense that the latter got more coverage as a result. But is that additional coverage driving debate into areas where it actually, in reality, doesn’t exist at the levels those numbers would suggest? And is that then fuelling further division as a result?
Don’t get me wrong, both the Michael Palmer and the Garner/Brown cases raise important issues that we should be discussing, societal concerns that need to be addressed. But could they also be fuelling negative connotations, or divisiveness, by highlighting elements of focus which distract from the wider topic?
In the case of Walter Palmer, everyone’s on the ‘I hate Walter Palmer’ train. But doesn’t that distract from the bigger issue of the need for action on the hunting of exotic animals? In the case of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the issue sparks accusations of racism and debate which forces people to take sides based, to some degree, on racial lines. But isn’t that, in itself, the definition of racism? Forcing each side to identify as white or black means we’re all focussed on race as a dividing factor, separating us from each other. But shouldn’t the focus be on police brutality of all kinds? That’s the unacceptable element here – the fact that race is involved is an undeniable, and critical element, but as in the case of Eric Garner, everyone agrees that police treating a person this way is unacceptable. In the case of Michael Brown, it was more divisive, forcing a wider debate which is then fuelled by extended coverage. But is that wider debate focussed on the key issue? Or is the resulting coverage inflaming a more adversarial debate in order to generate more attention?
I wouldn’t assume to be informed enough to know the full range of issues at stake, but the question needs to be asked whether the new media process is allocating more air time to divisive debates that may be detrimental to overall societal unity, but beneficial to readership and sales.
The question needs to be asked, are news outlets being incentivized to inform readers of the facts or to make readers click? I’d argue that the latter is far more prominent.
But then, what can you do about it?