There’s a lot of clamour at the moment around the propagation of untruths via online media and the harm being done to society as a result. The public has been disenfranchised from fact, and as a result news brands are about as devalued as they’ve ever been.
The tendency of highly partisan articles to be shared on Facebook is reinforcing the membrane of the bubbles in which we all live online, strengthening the prejudices of the public and the manner in which articles tend to be consumed downplays the importance of the news sources themselves.
As a result, for many publishers the choice is to become heavily partisan themselves or get crushed by the juggernaut of confirmation bias. It’s a vicious cycle, one in which to succeed at scale news brands have to publish to social networks that devalue their brand.
Put it this way: Had Facebook not contributed to the genericization of ‘news’ by reducing previously trusted brands to grist for its mill, would we be facing the scourge of ‘fake news’ at quite the scale we are? It doesn’t seem likely to me.
— Joe Edelman (@edelwax) January 2, 2017
And it’s not just Facebook that’s contributing to that issue. There are serious questions to be asked about Google’s role in discovery of content through products like AMP.
If you don’t trust Fox, and you open a NYT article, read it and swipe right and get Fox, you’re going to trust the NYT less.
— Aram Zucker-Scharff (@Chronotope) January 3, 2017
But we’re not ready to throw in the towel quite yet and declare the age of the trusted news brand is over, that we should all just start pumping out partisan content for our social media overlords. The value of a news publisher is inherently tied to its reputation, and even in the age of reliance on social media there are some ways to arrest that slide.
We don’t think that any one of the following suggestions alone can change how the public interacts with news brands. Instead we think it will take a combination of the following, along with other idea that we didn’t think of. It will be a collaborative effort (which I know is hard for publishers), one that could ultimately be necessary for news publishing as we know it to survive.
Reeducate the public
There are smart and earnest attempts under way to improve the public’s ability to determine what is and isn’t ‘fake news’. Doing so would enable the public to identify which sources are to be trusted and, as a result, which brands are more valuable and worth seeking out.
While it’s good and essential for individual journalists to promote media literacy and broadcast it to their own networks, the real victory would be for it to be taught in a more formal manner.
— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) January 2, 2017
“Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg of the Open University and Amy Brown of the University of Nottingham Ningbo in China, have called on institutions to provide students with “digital critical literacy” to help them understand how information is being processed and shared online.
“Prof Seargeant said that while students will learn how to discern what information is trustworthy or not as part of their “study skills” in higher education, these tools are rarely applied beyond their studies.”
Frankly it’s probably too much to hope that this practice will become widespread at all, let alone within the next few years. Critical appraisal of sources is already a key feature of many higher education courses, but making it habitual outside of a given subject or for people who never went to university is a much harder task.
Instead, publishers could do a lot worse than to encourage media literacy among their own readers in much the same way that celebrated fact-checkers like Ben Goldacre or the good folks at Snopes do – by providing textbook example of how they do it themselves.
As a corollary of that publishers will need to be much more aggressive in asserting the value of their journalism. As BILD’s Andreas Rickman put it:
“The challenge for social media teams in 2017 will be to convince the audiences of our credibility, to listen to them and to talk to them. Our task for 2017 will be to win back their faith in our journalistic work.”
Obviously most publishers trumpet the quality of their brand, particularly those that can call upon a heritage of having produced great journalism in the past. Such messaging is already central to subscriber acquisition.
But there are ways that ad-based publishers can alter how their stories are displayed that have much the same effect. In an article for Poynter, The Trust Project’s RC Lations explains that one way it could be done is with increased byline transparency:
“We thought “What would be really valuable is if we had the author’s expertise alongside the article.” If I’m writing an article about energy, there might be 1-2 lines about my 20 years of experience writing about energy and list my qualifications. It would be concise, something that you can glance at, which would give readers an instant sense of who is writing the article.
“Our big focus was transparency. The best thing we can do is be transparent. Maybe a publication has four editors that proofread and review articles before they go out but who knows that? No one knows staff credentials besides the newsroom, and we wanted to make (those credentials) more public.”
However, Lations notes that even checking a byline is part of media literacy, so it necessarily needs to build upon other endeavours.
Moreover, implementing plans like that are easily done on a publishers’ own site, but as discussed earlier the real reduction in the value of a newsbrand is done on other platforms that treat ‘news’ as an undifferentiated content type to be served to their users however they see fit. People have seen that coming for years, but it’s really starting to bite now.
— Mark Glaser (@mediatwit) January 4, 2017
Consequently, there needs to be a change in how news content is presented on platforms like Facebook and Google AMP. Those companies have both been vocal about the fact that they are willing to work with publishers to ensure their survival – even if some of their other moves seem to do publishers more harm than good. If publishers want to ameliorate the ongoing damage to their brands being done on those platforms, they’ll need to band together to negotiate better terms together.
What did we miss? How else can publishers mitigate the dangers of brand erasure online?