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?
This isn’t going to be what you think.
Now, we’ve all seen ‘Up’, right? It’s the Disney/Pixar movie about the old man who loses his wife, then looks set to lose his house, till he launches a million balloons and floats of in that very house on a mission to go on the grand voyage that he and his beloved never got to go on. It’s a great film, everyone likes Up – it’s got an 8.2/10 score on IMDB, putting it at number 113 on the top films of all-time. Up is a story to which most viewers have some level of emotional attachment – that first fifteen minutes is possibly one of the best examples of effective, human, storytelling ever captured on film, and it’s all done with zero dialogue, you just see the events play out. It’s classic cinema, but it’s also the ultimate example of how when we have an emotional anchor tying us to the heart of a story, that all the other details start to matter a lot less.
So, (and stop reading if you’ve never seen Up and don’t want to me to ruin it for you) after that first 15-20 minutes, we’re emotionally tied to the outcome of Up. We want Mr Fredricksen to come out of this okay, because his life story is so relatable and true to life. He’s had to deal with losing the only person he ever loved, the one person he needed, and now he’s tied to the house they had together, the memories he keeps. We, as the audience, want more than anything for Mr. Fredricksen to win after that montage sequence, because that’s what we want for ourselves – it’d be terrible to think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for him, for us. But then Up takes a turn for the less logical.
Mr. Fredricksen ties about a million balloons to his house and floats it. I can go with that, it links back to his former life selling balloons to kids and his only motivation now is to take his wife on one last adventure in the home they made. But then he finds Russell on his porch. How did Russell end up on his porch? For one, Russell was at his house the previous day, so he must’ve come back the next morning to continue his search for the Snipe – okay, I can go with that. But then he also must’ve seen the guys from the home come to the front door and that didn’t deter him at all. Okay, stretching. Russell then, when the house starts lifting off the ground, must have either jumped onto the porch, or not got off the porch, depending on where he was at, and held on for dear life as it took off. There’s no logical reason for this. But we forgive this element because, well, who cares? The dude’s flying a house levitated by balloons, logic’s already largely been thrown out the window.
But more than that, we don’t care because we’re already emotionally invested in the outcome. We’ve bought into Mr. Fredricksen’s story, and it’ll take a hell of a lot to get us to stop caring about him now – details be damned.
In this sense, Up gets away with a heap of stroyline quirks and plot holes that other films wouldn’t have a chance of overcoming. How is it possible that the adventurer, Charles Muntz, is still alive and still chasing that bird when he was already an old man when Mr. Fredricksen was a boy. This is somewhat explained at the beginning, when they say Paradise Falls is ‘a land lost in time’, but is it, in fact, lost in time? Have they somehow travelled back in time? How was Muntz able to develop technology to translate dogs in an isolated forest? Why isn’t Mr. Fredricksen more amazed about this? Why isn’t Muntz happy to see another human, why isn’t he asking how the hell he gets back – he must have family or something? Why isn’t Muntz more surprised that some old man has flown a house to the falls? Does anyone care about any of this?
No. And that’s the triumph of Up. Up highlights the absolute power of human connection, of finding the human heart of a story, as an effective storytelling practise. If you can find the human heart to a story, you can make it about anything – wars happening in a galaxy far, far away, love stories happening on a doomed cruise liner in the time before it crashes. Human connection, linking with your audience and making your story relatable to them, is more important than virtually any other element. Because we connect through stories, we relate. It’s stories that bind us together and make us feel less alone in the world.
Up is the ultimate example of this. Don’t believe me? Imagine Up without that opening montage, with no context for his relationship, other than him talking to his now absent partner every now and then. And while gaps in logic are always less of an issue in kids films, they’re almost totally irrelevant in Up. Because all we want is for Mr. Fredricksen to get that house onto that clifftop, just like his wife always wanted. That emotional drive is powerful, the heart of the story is what everything else refers back to. If you can find your story’s heart, you’re on the path to building an emotionally resonant, and connective, piece.
I read an interview with author Arnold Zable recently in which he discussed his work in championing causes through his writing, notably asylum seekers. Zable talked about the power of storytelling in such efforts, saying that ‘story is a very beautiful way to lead people somewhere else’. Zable noted that more than statistics and facts, telling the real story, revealing the true, human experience behind issues is the only real way to cut through and make people take notice.
Zable’s words definitely rang true to me – we’re constantly berated by numbers and figures behind issues like asylum seekers or climate change, to the point where their effectiveness is diminished. But a real story, of how a mother fled a war-torn land to save her children, that brings the issue home in a far more visceral and powerful way. You feel it, you respond to it. While data and figures are important, logical cues, the power of storytelling should not – and cannot – be underestimated.
The Rise of the Brand Journalist
This got me to thinking about how we’re discussing storytelling in content marketing. There’s a big focus on story at the moment, because emotional triggers are what drive social sharing. The ever increasing amount of people using social media leads to an equally increasing amount of brands looking to utilise social channels to reach their audience, and the best way to do that, to compel people to like and share your brand message, is through content. Storytelling has always been the strongest way to deliver a resonant message, but now, with the audience having more control than ever over their media inputs, compelling content is crucial. Shareable content. You need to give people a reason to like your brand, a reason to want to talk about your business or business message. People aren’t on social to be advertised to, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, they want to join in on the wider conversation. The more your content can form a part of that discussion, the more successful your brand will be at maximising social channels.
One thing I have noted, in seeing the growing emphasis on content and storytelling in marketing, is that the term ‘brand journalism’ has also grown in step. The pervading view is that all brands are now publishers in the modern digital landscape – the audience needs a reason to align with you, so you need to tell stories, and online platforms provide you with the means to do just that. This has seen an increasing number of businesses look to producing their own stories, their own angles on relevant discussions, and that, effectively, is brand journalism. But every time I see this term I question whether a brand journalist is what you really want.
The Power of Story
Definitely, journalists are accomplished writers who are able to communicate the facts of the story, and many of them are, at heart, storytellers who are passionate about finding the core of a piece and building an experience for the reader. But a lot of journalism, too, is facts and figures.
For instance, this was a piece in an Australian newspaper recently, looking at the tragic disappearance of Dane Kowalski:
This is solid news journalism, all the facts are there, all the detail. But compare that to this single post from a friend of Dane’s, who’d been doing all he could to locate him:
In two sentences, this post has captured far more emotion, delivered far more resonance, because this is something this person is living. The pain is raw, real – the story is more than a piece in the news section. Every story is – there’s more to a news item than the who, what, when and where – the why is the real story. The people living it are the real connectors. You can read over a set of facts like:
Yet none of those figures are as compelling as an actual story:
Nothing comes from no where. In every story, in everyone’s life, in every event, there’s a passion, a human heart at it’s core. That story is what people relate to, what people identify with, and ultimately, what people respond to. Given that, in many cases it may not be ‘brand journalists’ that you need, but ‘brand storytellers’, people who can uncover the true purpose and passion behind what you do.
A Human Story
Of course, many, if not most, journalists are driven by a passion to tell human stories, to share that core truth of a story in order to let the audience develop an informed opinion on the subject. But it always stands out to me when I see the term used. And a lot of the content that does get shared via social networks is facts and figures based, so it’s not to say that a news-style approach doesn’t work either, but I guess the point here is in understanding what gets shared, why people share content – it’s in understanding what stories resonate with audiences. Those are the real stories, the human side. A news story might be about a man’s company going bust, but that didn’t just happen. There’s a long trail of events that lead to that business collapsing, a story behind those details that would allow the reader to build a better understanding and emotional connection with the material – and this type of investigative journalism, based in true storytelling, is what’s most beneficial to building better discussion and understanding. Because people make judgements based on what they read. If they only have the basic details, their opinions will be established on those. But if they have all the information, then they can absorb it and make a judgement based on the whole picture.
The TV show Catfish is a great example – someone will be scamming someone else online by pretending to be someone they’re not – and it’s easy for us, as the viewers, to side with the victim, because they are the ones being lied to. But more often than not, the perpetrators themselves are just sad, or lonely, or lost and when you hear their side of the story, the right and wrong of the situation isn’t so clear. They’re all people, they all do things for their own reasons. Those reasons are powerful and add real insight. Those are the stories we need to share.
Not everyone wants to read the detail, not everyone will appreciate the story, but it’s important to understand what resonates, what style of storytelling works to reach people’s emotional triggers and subsequently generates discussion and community. Facts and figures and important, but why are they important? What do those numbers actually mean for the real people involved? Great storytelling reveals this, great journalism reveals this, but you need to recognise what you’re actually aiming for when establishing a content plan and working with writers and writing staff.
Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?
A Changing Conversation
We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.
This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.
The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.
The Diversification of Creation
What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).
Opportunities in Innovation
So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.