The news media trades off the trust of their audiences. “This is the truth,” they say, “and we offer the context for why it matters to you”. Talk is cheap, obviously, and many news organisations only have a passing acquaintance with the truth, but it’s the trust of their audiences they bank upon all the same.
Research by Moat on behalf of the World Media Group has demonstrated the extent to which publishers rely on the trusted nature of their brands to command high ad prices. Moat report that attention paid to ads on the WMG brands far outstripped agency standards, with desktop video and mobile ads singled out as particularly benefitting from appearing opposite the trusted content.
Unfortunately the vast explosion of alternative news sources that accompanied the widespread adoption of the internet has eroded the trust the general population places in the news media as a whole. Research from Ipsos Mori consistently puts journalists somewhere between estate agents and lichen when it comes to levels of trust, pretty much on par with the politicians we’re intended to hold to power.
And the problem, while exacerbated by that promulgation of digital news sources, is partially the fault of the legacy media outlets who have fed their audiences’ desire for self-deceit and confirmation bias to chase scale. It’s the internet’s Original Sin, still harming publishers years down the line.
“Truth is something that happens to an idea”
For all the talk of fake news – and publishers’ outspoken opposition to it – it’s readily apparent that they are reliant upon a system that rewards the propagation of that misinformation. The Guardian’s chief revenue officer Hamish Nicklin argued as much at the Changing Media Summit, saying:
“Fake news is being used as a key weapon to fight truth. And the digital advertising paradigm is helping to fund it, in fact I’d go as far as to say that it rewards it.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it looks as though the UK news media didn’t have a problem with ‘fake news’ until they lost their monopoly on it. They benefited from the system that rewards the creation of heavily partisan, shareable articles by feeding the confirmation bias of their audiences. That was the case before the internet started disrupting their business models, too, but now less truthful news who don’t even pay lip service to truth had proved themselves to be just as adept at abusing that digital advertising paradigm.
It’s exacerbated by the fact that the internet has homogenised ‘news’ content to the point that a recent Pew Research Centre study found that people could only recall the source of a news link they had read in the past two hours 56 percent of the time – and Pew didn’t check whether they were recalling them correctly. Given the explosion of news sources – whether real or fake – over the past few years, it’s no surprise then that the cachet of legacy news sources is lessened.
Speaking at the last Changing Media Summit Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London, explained what effect that explosion of alternatives to legacy news outlets online means for trust in online news sources:
“Today the only thing that changed is that it’s a lot easier to create seemingly real news. Anyone with access to the internet can create a soundbite or fake article… and it can become true.
“One of the interesting things I think is rarely discussed is that people are not really that interested in truth. We are much more interested in the observed.”
He went on to argue that since the amount of time we can pay to any stimulus is limited, we inherently prioritise any news that saves us time and energy by appealing to our confirmation bias – the desire to have what we believe reaffirmed. That’s made worse by the filter bubbles in which we all – on the right and left alike – spend much of our time online.
— Jon Bernstein (@Jon_Bernstein) March 16, 2017
“Attention is by definition selective. We add information to the environment that isn’t there. Humans are basically meaning machines. The only thing that the filter bubble is make this easier for us. It’s economising and making a process we all want more accessible to us.
“This leads to people treating real information as false if it is convenient.”
So how can publishers get out of the quagmire of creating that homogenised news ‘content’ that is undifferentiated in the minds of their audiences?
There are already attempts underway to remove the financial incentive for creating that fake news, and credible arguments have been made that publishers need to work with Google and Facebook to create a true financial incentive for publishing truthful, reliable news. Both methods would alter the balance of incentives for publishing untruthful stories (if publishers could ever unilaterally agree on what even constitutes ‘truth’).
In time, that might even help publishers regain some of the trust they lost when their attempts to chase scale enabled other, less trustworthy news sources to do the same.