The New News Strategy? How the Panic Over Fake News Could Undermine the News

There seems to be a pattern evolving around concerns over fake news – one that runs counter to more conventional expectations. Most people expect that raising concerns over fake news might actually lead to improvements in search, platforms, regulation, or consumer behavior that improves the quality and diversity of news. However, the opposite might be unfolding.

The story begins with the panic over fake news. It is a panic since most research on the actual use of online news suggests that people see multiple sources and most often check news that they see as questionable but important, such as by using search. This panic over fake news has been fueled by a focus on the production of fake news. It is indeed produced albeit this phenomenon is not new – that is one reason why search engines were invented. But far less attention has been directed at its consumption. When you look systematically at how Internet users consume news, such as information about politics, it is clear that the impacts of fake news are largely mitigated.*

How Panic is Undermining News

However, the mainstream media continue to promote the idea of fake news, with mainstream news being the source of truth and fact, to the degree that politicians, regulators, and the public have become increasingly concerned, pressing online platforms to ‘do something’ about it. Internet platforms have done so by raising quite dramatically the prominence of mainstream news sources when people search for news online.

As a consequence, when you go online for news about what is going on in the world, you are increasingly likely to be steered to the headline news of the mainstream news media. If you wish to go beyond the headline news, you find yourself asked to pay for a subscription to go behind their paywall. This has already proven so effective that even academics are beginning to think that subscription services are seeing a renaissance of sorts. However, this increase is being driven by the platforms and news aggregators prioritizing mainstream news headlines, to avoid the charge of promoting fake news. Thus, the concern over fake news is essentially creating advertising for subscription news services, with more providers moving to pay walls, and existing subscription services raising their rates, doubling them in some cases.

So the Internet is becoming less of a source for diverse news as stories in the long tail are pushed behind the headlines, and more of a source for the most popular headline news – the same news you hear on radio and TV. Will this undermine online first news outlets? I believe it already has done so.

Therefore, I am worried that panic over fake news is leading us to no news beyond the major headline stories that leave so much news uncovered. The thrust of actual research on the use of online news should undermine the panic over fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, but journalists don’t read social science, and the story of fake news serves their interests.

Of course, I am simplifying a complex set of developments, but I believe this captures a pattern that is not being identified in the current fake news narrative. I am a news fan, subscribing to multiple print newspapers and an avid consumer of online news, which has been so complementary to the print news. If we recognize this tendency, we can hack through the headlines, and search for specific topics and information, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself walled off from more information by pay services.

Let me know if you think this is wrong, fake, or exaggerated, let me know. I fear I am right about this, but am open to be proven wrong, and think systematic research on this trend would be of value.

 

*Here is a blog about this panic: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688 and here is an article about how few users are susceptible to fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles, and why: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. Online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3316768

 

Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award at TPRC 2019

The 47th Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy will be held from September 20-21, 2019, at American University Washington College of Law Washington, D.C. TPRC is an annual cross-disciplinary conference on communications, information, and Internet policy that convenes researchers and policymakers from law, economics, engineering, computer science, public policy and related fields working in academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations around the world.

TPRC is seeking submissions for its 47th conference, including papers, posters, panels, a Student Paper Competition, the Graduate Student Consortium, and for the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award. As a recent member of the TPRC Board of Directors, I would like to draw your attention to the conference, and the award for early career researchers.

TPRC and the Benton Foundation have announced the third year of the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award, recognizing scholarship in the area of digital inclusion and broadband adoption. This special honor will be awarded at TPRC in 2019 in honour of Charles Benton, a longstanding supporter of TPRC and tireless advocate for media, communications and digital equality. The award recipient will receive US$1,500 and will be recognized at a lunch during the TPRC conference and the winner will receive complimentary registration for the conference.

Applications and nominations can be received for scholars currently enrolled in a degree program or no more than five years from receipt of their most recent degree. Acceptable submissions include:

  • An original, empirically-based research paper pertaining digital inclusion and/or broadband adoption
  • A policy proposal for digital inclusion and broadband adoption with a discussion of the justification
  • An essay on a topic dealing with digital inclusion and/or broadband adoption.

Submissions must be less than 25 double-spaced, typewritten pages, including notes and references and will not have been formally published in a peer reviewed outlet prior to TPRC47.

The recipient will be chosen by a TPRC Board Committee and must attend the conference and agree to work with Benton Foundation’s Executive Editor, Kevin Taglang, to produce a blog article based on the winning submission for benton.org.

Due Dates:

Applications: May 31

Notice of Decision: July 15

Blog post: December 31

For questions regarding the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award, please contact me at William.Dutton at gmail.com or check out the TPRC conference website at: https://www.tprcweb.com

Dollar Waiting on a Nickel: Life and Work Online

I planned to spend all of my day writing, but instead, I spent the entire day trying to deal with problems with routers, software, browsers, etc. My router disconnected from my printer, and reconnecting is not straightforward. I received proofs for a book review from a publisher, who insisted I use their browser and their editing software to amend my proofs, which caused hours of wasted time. In the end, I refused to download their software just to make a few minor adjustments.

via Arthur Berger

I had a father-son team of carpenters working at my home once, and they kept saying to each other that one had a ‘dollar waiting on a nickel’. They had a major job to do that was waiting for a trivial job to be completed. This is becoming my life online. Increasingly it is difficult to do real work while trying to cope with the increasingly complicated packages of hardware and software that raise untold numbers of new problems on a daily basis.

I am so old and senior that I am increasingly moving to the strategy of telling those who insist that I use their system, their form, their preferred browser, their software, and their time frame, to simply read my email. No thank you.

If You Read an Email Message, Read It All: Responding to a Worrisome Trend

Much is said about how the Internet has changed our communication habits, such as shifting communication to email and text messaging versus pen and paper letters through the post. And I enjoy debates over how email might be effecting our writing styles. But I am noticing a worrisome trend, which is admittedly only anecdotal – simply a relatively personal observation – but one that I fear is a plausible development. That is, people are not reading beyond the first few lines and seldom reading your entire message.

Courtesy Arthur A. Berger

It is evidenced by such things as people responding to mail, but only to the first question or first point in a message. For example, you might ask someone two questions, and they only respond to the first. Similarly, if I make a sarcastic point, or make an attempt at joking, it is misunderstood – possibly not read carefully or in the context of the entire email.

I am convinced that people are so inundated with email that they are trying to find all sorts of shortcuts, such as quickly deleting near-spam email that makes its way through filters, and also only rapidly reading what they need in order to delete or respond to an email as quickly as possible. It is like: “Okay. Bill wants to know x” and quickly responding, but not realizing I also wanted to know y.

So it is not only that people don’t write letters anymore. Many people don’t genuinely read their email anymore. One reason social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are so valued is that there is no pressure to actually read or respond to anyone’s post. And so most people don’t do either, and can be quite selective. In contrast, comparatively speaking, email still creates a greater sense of obligation to respond, if only to confirm receipt. However, in today’s busy-busy world, we respond as efficiently as possible. In the process, we sometimes fail to genuinely read the full text.

So what can we do? Here is what I am doing more and more.

First, keep trying to write better, clearer, more succinct emails. I try to keep my emails as short as possible. Short and simple but not too short or simple to be ambiguous or misunderstood. Flame wars have been started by short misunderstood emails.

Secondly, telescope your point(s) in the introduction if not the subject of the email. Readers might then look for the announced points, even if they are trying to short-circuit reading the entire missive.

Third, I increasingly avoid making more than one point per email. So I’ll send two emails, each on a separate point, rather than combine multiple asks in one message. Also you might separate them by a day or two. Is this adding to our email glut? Maybe, but you also increase the likelihood of your message being read and meaningful. It also forces you to think harder about whether you need to ask every question that comes to mind.

Finally, when using humor, sarcasm, or telling a joke, you might well be wise to stoop to the point of adding an emoji to guard against the reader taking you too seriously or literally. 🙂

Ironically, if I am right, most of you will not get this far in my blog to read these strategies, particularly those who are overwhelmed. I can only suggest that you need to do your best to keep your readers by keeping the text interesting throughout, and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Just say “no” and stay within your limits.

Thank you again, Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown died on 22 December 2018 at 77 years of age, and was buried in Somerset this week on 10 January 2019. After serving as a Royal Marine, and serving years as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an MP, his life has been celebrated by many.

It may seem small, but I can’t help but remember Paddy Ashdown for helping me and my colleagues by taking the time to speak at the last international conference of the Programme on Information & Communication Technologies (PICT) in 1995. The conference was entitled ‘The Social and Economic Implications of Information and Communication Technologies’, and was held at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London, from 10-12 May 1995.

The Rt. Hon Paddy Ashdown agreed to do the keynote of the conference, and he was joined by other parliamentarians, including John Battle, Kenneth Baker, Richard Caborn, Chris Smith, Ian Taylor and Sir Kenneth Warren. The event, and Paddy Ashdown’s keynote, was a capstone to one of the first social science research programmes focused on information and communication technologies, such as the Internet. It was sustained by two phases of research grants from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I was national director of this programme during its last years, following earlier directors, Bill Melody and Nicky Gardner. It gave me the opportunity to work with such great colleagues as Martin Cave, Richard Collins, Rod Coombs, Jane (Yellowtrees) Douglas, David Edge, Wendy Faulkner, James Fleck, the late Chris Freeman, Nick Garnham, Andrew Gillespie, John Goddard, Leslie Haddon, Christine Hine, David Knights, Sonia Livingstone, Stuart Macdonald, Robin Mansell, Ian Miles, Geoff Mulgan, Hugh Willmott, Vince Porter, Paul Quintas, Kevin Robins, the late Roger Silverstone, Colin Sparks, John Taylor, Juliet Webster, Robin Williams, Steve Woolgar, and many many others.

PICT was a successful research programme that paved the way for a series of research programmes to follow on its heels and together make an incredible difference in the way people in the UK and worldwide think about the societal implications of the Internet and related information and communication technologies. I’m not sure if those who contribute their time and efforts to supporting academic research, as Paddy Ashdown did, realise how their contributions make a difference and are remembered. So thank you again, Lord Ashdown, for seeing the significance of what we were doing and supporting it with your presence – well before the significance of the new technologies were widely recognised.

Lord Paddy Ashdown

Information Communication and Society (iCS) at 20

I joined up with Brian Loader in 1998 as a co-founder to help launch a new journal, Information Communication and Society(iCS) with Taylor and Francis Routledge. In our first year, we began with four issues per year, and most of our then small number of readers were located in the UK. Since stepping down as an editor, while staying on the Board, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of the editorial team this week, and had an update that was heartening – even exciting – in every way.

Over the past 20 years of its existence, iCS has become a truly global journal, publishing 14 (yes, 14) issues per year. It is on- as well as off-line, with all articles published online as soon as they have gone through final proofing – months ahead of their publication in print form through a policy of online first. In 2018, there were 362K downloads of iCS articles, up 23 percent from the previous year. Its impact factor has risen to 3.084 and readership puts it top of all sociology journals in the UK, and 7th worldwide. It is 5th in communication worldwide. All upwardly slopping curves. 

The journal was put together early in the rise of Internet and new media studies. Its mission was to draw ‘together the most current work upon the social, economic and cultural impact of the emerging properties of the new information and communications technologies’ in order to be ‘at the centre of contemporary debates about the information age’. So its success is due in large part to its central position in a burgeoning substantive area. It also has enjoyed a strong team, led by Brian Loader, and a supportive publisher in Routledge a member of Taylor and Francis.

In a recent online discussion about another more niche academic journal, several colleagues pronounced the end of print journals. My experience with iCS underscores the degree that print journals, like iCS, are routinely online as well as in print, and they are very much alive and well. They take time and hard work to build a dedicated community of scholars, but they remain one of the main channels of communication in academia, including the social and economic sciences, such as in cultural and Internet studies.

Brian Loader, Un of York

The Values Added by Professional Journalists – and Collaboration with Academics

As a student of, and advocate for, digital citizens of the Fifth Estate, I have been seriously interested in journalism studies. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a symposium organized by the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University by virtue of being a Visiting Professor at the School this year. It was entitled ‘Distinctive Roles for Public Service Journalism in Challenging Times’. The event brought practitioners, mainly from the BBC, together with academics, for a set of well-chosen topics, outlined below. The symposium adhered to the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t attribute quotes to individuals, but I will try to capture some of the ways in which the discussions stimulated my own thinking about ‘public service journalism’ in the Internet Age.

Held on 27 November, the one-day event was organized by Professor Stephen Coleman at Leeds, and Ric Bailey, from the BBC, who is a Visiting Professor at Leeds. I presume that Ric Bailey took a strong role with Stephen in bringing speakers from the BBC and Ric moderated the entire day of discussion. This academic-practitioner collaboration was key to the day’s success.

The symposium began with a presentation by Joanna Carr, Head of Current Affairs at the BBC, who covered key challenges facing public service broadcasters. This was followed immediately by a panel led by Joanna and John Corner, a Visiting Professor in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, formerly based at Liverpool University,on the challenges of reporting and explaining complex issues covered by the media, such as ‘austerity’, climate change, or Brexit. The presentation and panel drove home some key themes for me of the entire day – mainly around the thought and craft that professional journalists put into their strategies for putting audiences at the heart of their work.

I approached this panel with some level of skepticism about complexity as an issue. First, my own academic colleagues too often lament that their work is too complex to convey in a more accessible way. But they nevertheless come up with engaging titles for their books, and abstracts for their articles, so it is not impossible to simplify. Complexity is not an acceptable excuse for being unclear. Secondly, I can never forget an editor of a prestigious news magazine once telling me that she instructions to her writers was to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. I’m simplifying, but nevertheless her phrase worried me. Simplification might be a central problem facing journalism.

However, this panel won me over to the challenges facing good journalists. It drove home the degree that leading journalists are truly focused on reaching their audiences with coverage that is both engaging and understandable. As one speaker reminded us: “You can’t force people to eat their greens”, or to listen to their news coverage.

So the ‘craft skills’ that journalists bring to the table in selecting, defining, and communicating stories is a huge contribution to the public, what one panelist referred to as ‘BBC simplification’ is not to simplify and exaggerate to gain readers or viewers, but simplify to deliver a public service. They seek to avoid ‘elite speech’, even though some well-regarded journalists believed in talking to elites rather than the mass public, and not simply report what the subjects of the news say freely, but to structure and sequence the flow of complex stories and determine what needs to be ‘dug out’ through good interviewing skills, often conducted in a highly politicized space. Their efforts are clearly around adding value to the news, not simply reporting it.

There was an interesting discussion of the differences in complexity across issues, such as Brexit versus climate change. Some complex issues are abstract and don’t have the ‘lighting flashes’ that that make some events, such as a crash, relatively easier to report. It also seemed to me that some issues are complicated but some well-known fundamentals, such as climate change, while others, like Brexit, are impossible to know precisely as they are unfolding and unpredictable futures – what the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously called ‘known unknowns’.[1]

The second panel focused on data journalism, kicked off by Professor Chris Anderson of Leeds, who spoke about some of the continuities and discontinuities that data journalism brings to traditional journalistic practices. John Walton, who leads the BBC data journalism team at the BBC, followed with an overview of their work. Chris focused more on the discontinuities, but I kept thinking of data journalism as a continuation and growing sophistication of a long tradition of journalists valuing data. Social scientists are often advised to provide some percentages in their press releases to increase the likelihood of a story being picked up. But today, the best news organizations are developing more sophisticated teams within their own organization, like the BBC journalism team, to locate and analyze data that can create news items, often in collaboration with others. Of course, the same trend towards more collaborative and team research is evident across the social sciences as data sciences in academia as well.[2].

C. W. Anderson, from his Blog

After lunch, Professor Jay Blumler gave a brief talk that identified some of the new challenges facing investigative journalism. He surveyed the changing context of journalism as well as the enduring value of journalistic roles, such as in exposing wrongs, before providing a litany of challenges facing investigative journalism, such as when the targets of investigative journalism are overwhelmed and find it difficult to reply in a timely and comprehensive manner. He also argued for journalists more explicitly considering the social implications of journalism, such as the degree to which investigative reporting might lead politicians and other public figures to consider themselves ‘sitting ducks’ for the media. What impact will this have on the willingness of individuals to step into the public arena? His talk was followed by responses and additional input from Gail Champion, Editor of the BBC programme, File on 4, and Phil Abrams, who gave impressive examples of stories that got things right, and a few where they ‘got things wrong’, but learn from them.

Jay Blumler and Bill, 2018

This panel was followed by one focused on the enduring challenge of moving journalism beyond its centre of gravity in the London/Westminster bubble, such as with the decision to locate the new Channel 4 headquarters in Leeds. Professor Katy Parry led off this panel, followed by Tim Smith, Regional Head of BBC for Yorkshire, and Andrew Sheldon, Creative Director of True North TV. I found it amazing that the politics of broadcasting in the UK remains so focused on the nations and regions, such as in respect to the distribution of production and original content. The BBC and other major broadcasters in the UK have such national prestige that the locations of new headquarters, such as Channel 4’s recent decision to build in Leeds, can be very significant to attracting talent outside the London bubble. But even more interesting to me was the degree that the Internet and social media as well as on-demand streaming video was not viewed as a threat to broadcasting in the UK, as it would be in the US. In fact, examples arose of Netflix investing in UK content and production skills.

The final summary panel featured the symposium’s academic organizer, Professor Stephen Coleman, who nicely captured and built on the key themes of the day. His remarks were followed by a panel-led discussion. Stephen emphasized the motives of what he called ‘public service journalism’ by comparing public service media organizations to public universities, such as Leeds, where there are legitimate demands for a commitment to justice, accountability, and a civic – citizen – orientation.

Gillian Bolsover & Stephen Coleman, Leeds University

This was of course a friendly and receptive audience for journalists. Nevertheless, I was left more convinced than ever that public service broadcasting is alive and well in the UK through the BBC and other public service broadcast journalism, and that collaboration between practitioners and academics, as orchestrated on the day, adds real value to both.

Notes

[1]https://academic.oup.com/jxb/article/60/3/712/453685

[2]Dutton, W. H., and Jeffreys, P. (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.