Even though the American public’s perception of news media is at an all-time low, innovative media technologies are giving traditional publishers a glimmer of hope.
Today, Americans distrust the mass media more than ever before. According to a recent Gallup survey, just 32% of Americans are confident that news organizations will “report the news fully, accurately, and fairly,” down from 50% of Americans who felt that way in 2005. Pew research also indicates that nearly 40% of Americans now go online to read the news.
Traditional publishers no longer have a monopoly on the dissemination of information. Although some 76% of Americans still get their online news directly from established news sources, nearly 70% report that they get this information from their friends’ social feeds, which they feel are “very relevant to their interests”. Traditional news publications are competing for attention with the social media networks of their readers, forcing them to become more engaging and personalized.
After observing the massive shift taking place in the industry, less scrupulous publishers saw the opportunity for advertising revenue by creating fake news stories appealing to certain demographics. BuzzFeed analyzed the performance of some of these false stories, and found that they were shared more widely than legitimate stories from credible news organizations.
Despite these machinations, a January 2017 study from Stanford concluded that fake news likely didn’t sway the outcome of the 2016 election. Nonetheless, the study noted that fabricated stories targeting Trump supporters garnered some 30 million shares, which is an astoundingly large audience for unverified information.
The Need for “News Literacy”
I spoke to Rob Lever from Agence France Presse about this phenomenon, and he expanded on some of the quandaries facing social media platforms and digital publishers today. “With newspapers, it was possible to prioritize news items by putting them on the front page, but Facebook and Google can’t really operate that way,” Lever said.
It seems the major platforms agree — recently, Facebook announced a partnership with CNN’s Campbell Brown and other prominent news organizations. Together, these media gatekeepers plan to promote what they’re calling “news literacy.” A readership that is better able to differentiate fact from fiction paired with new algorithmic technologies that filter and de-emphasize content from spurious sources will go a long way towards limiting the reach of fake news stories. That’s not the only way technology leaders plan to influence the news, however.
Citizen Journalism Breaks the Traditional Model
Since the advent of NINJA in 2013, smartphone technology has made it possible for just about anybody to become a citizen journalist, and plenty of tech giants intend to help them do just that. Facebook’s algorithms prioritize Facebook Live content, and Twitter has become a buzzing hub of potential stories for local, national, and international reporters alike.
In the words of MediaShift’s Mark Glaser, “live-streaming has always been great for capturing big news as it happens, whether it’s a war scene or a celebration or sports event. Now with Facebook Live, more people can live-stream than ever before, so the possibilities are pretty wide open.”
For citizen journalists and media professionals alike, the ability to instantly share videos from news events in real-time has had a transformative effect. “It means you can deliver more information to a wider audience than ever before, without sacrificing credibility or authenticity,” says Lever. “You don’t have to dispatch a camera crew on a satellite truck to deliver news video and really put people there. That’s a big change in journalism.”
Live Streaming As a Pathway Back to Credibility
Moving forward, savvy media experts will engage skeptical consumers on their own turf in order to regain their trust. To that end, many publishers seem to agree, and expect that the proliferation of fake news will strengthen their position as quality news sources. Armed with a more accessible approach and a willingness to learn from their mistakes, it’s possible for journalists to thwart the wide-ranging American distrust of media.
Some have already begun this transition — public affairs network C-SPAN used Periscope to stream a sit-in protest by congressional Democrats last summer, and CNN has been experimenting with interactive broadcasts via Facebook Live for months now.
“Journalists and publishers need to be more accessible and open to new ideas from readers and users,” says Glaser. “They need to start proactively engaging with readers where they spend the majority of their time, whether that’s on Facebook, Snapchat, or messaging apps.”
As podcasting and live streaming veteran Luria Petrucci confirms, “Live video is one of the best and most effective tools news organizations can use to engage with their audiences and make them feel more invested in the brand.” Petrucci claims that the sense of involvement users glean from streaming platforms is what makes them so powerful. “When you make [your audience] a part of your story, you win. Because you tell them you care.”
“There is no one, easy way to fix this problem,” explains new media expert Bianca Fortis, “but I think one solution is returning to the tenets of good, ethical journalism: do smart journalism about important issues, and report the news accurately and fairly.”