Are Newspapers Surrendering News Coverage? The Big Impact of Online News

Today’s New York Times provided a clear illustration of an impact of the rise of online news and associated cable and satellite news coverage around the clock. Could it be true that newspapers have given up on trying to report breaking news?

Source: Wikipedia

Maybe this was a bad news day, but the front page of today’s 19 March 2017 Sunday New York Times had virtually no ‘news’ – only essays or stories on conservatives trying to change the judiciary, the risks associated with SWAT teams serving search warrants, the perks of Uber versus taxi services, healthcare, the damages done by Boko Haram, and an obituary for Chuck Berry. All are interesting and valuable stories, but not one story was what I would call hard or breaking news, as I understand news. The closest was Chuck Berry’s obituary. For example, there was no coverage of the US Secretary of State’s visits in East Asia, but an essay on page 10 about the dangerous options available vis-à-vis North Korea.

Most studies of the impact of online news focus on the declining revenues and advertising in the newspaper industry, and the decline of print newspapers as more move only online. However, the greatest impact might well be on what editors believe is fit to print in the newspaper. If they are inevitably scooped by online news, then why publish news that is a day old? So the editors shift increasingly to analysis and opinion pieces on the news, rather than even try to surface new news.

In academia, a similar impact is apparent in book publishing, where I have long argued that while more books are published year by year, it is important to look at the content of books to see the real impact. In my own case, why would I put material in a book that is already available online, or for which more up-to-date information will be online before any book goes into print? So, I think about what would have a longer shelf-life as a book, and focus on key arguments, and the potential to send readers online for more facts on a particular case or event.

Interestingly, while so much angst in the US and worldwide is focused on the rise of fake news, which I have argued as not that new, the real problem might be the more basic demise of hard news reporting. Televisions news coverage is shifting more and more to entertaining debates about the news, and less and less investment in coverage of breaking developments. Now print newspapers seem to be moving away from the reporting of real news to analysis of known developments, perhaps with some investigative reporting, but essentially the discussion of what is already known.

Of course, a valuable role of the reporter is to put facts into a larger and more meaningful context, and this is as aspect of what we see more of in the newspaper. But my worry is that they are moving closer to the role of news magazines, which themselves are challenged by the pace of online news developments.

I would like to learn of more systematic research on any changes in the content of the news, but with increasing worry about trust in the authenticity of the news, it strikes me as worrisome that newspapers might well be retreating from their traditional role in sourcing original and putting it into a broader context for their readers. Hopefully, my fears are not warranted. Instead of threats of fake news, we may be facing the threat of less if not no news from the sources we have relied on for decades.

 

Simplify and Then Exaggerate, Big League

I was taken back years ago when the editor of a major news magazine told me that she told her editors to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. That was the secret formula for writing a good news story.

th-1To me it is increasingly clear that all the news media have moved in this direction, and to keep in line with political rhetoric, they have also added a huge level of hyperbole to the formula. Fox and CNN are driving this trend, particularly with their panels. We have almost become the nation of hyperbole.

The bad news is that more and more news is so exaggerated that it is simply wrong, misinformation. The worse news is that, in due course, no one will take political rhetoric or news media seriously. It will just be viewed as entertainment.

The best journalists and politicians work harder to avoid this formula, and clarify the complexities surrounding so many issues. Call out over simplistic hyperbole for what it is. Hyperbole is part of President Trump’s style, but it is not simply the President’s rhetoric as this level of exaggeration came before him (the Tea Party) and goes beyond the President today, such as with the media and resistance to Trump, with its followers being proud to be compared to the Tea Party of yesteryear.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Panic over Fake News

Fake News is a Wonderful Headline but Not a Reason to Panic

I feel guilty for not jumping on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon. It is one of the new new things in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. And because purposively misleading news stories, like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, engage so many people, and have such an intuitive appeal, I should be riding this bandwagon.[1] It could be good for my own research area around Internet studies. But I can’t. We have been here before, and it may be useful to look back for some useful lessons learned from previous moral panics over the quality of information online. th-1

Fake News

Fake news typically uses catchy headlines to lure readers into a story that is made up to fit the interests of a particular actor or interest. Nearly all journalism tries to do the same, particularly as journalism is moving further towards embracing the advocacy of particular points of view, versus trying to present the facts of an event, such as a decision or accident. In the case of fake news, facts are often manufactured to fit the argument, so fact checking is often an aspect of identifying fake news. And if you can make up the facts, it is likely to be more interesting than the reality. This is one reason for the popularity of some fake news stories.

It should be clear that this phenomenon is not limited to the Internet. For example, the 1991 movie JFK captured far more of an audience than the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy. Grassy Knoll conspiracy theories were given more credibility by Oliver Stone than were the facts of the case, and needless to say, his movie was far more entertaining.

Problems with Responding

There are problems with attacking the problem of fake news.

First, except in the more egregious cases, it is often difficult to definitively know the facts of the case, not to mention what is ‘news’. Many fake news stories are focused on one or another conspiracy theory, and therefore hard to disprove. Take the flurry of misleading and contradictory information around the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, or over who was responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July of 2014 over a rebel controlled area of eastern Ukraine. In such cases in which there is a war on information, it is extremely difficult to immediately sort out the facts of the case. In the heat of election campaigns, it is also difficult. Imagine governments or Internet companies making these decisions in any liberal democratic nation.

Secondly, and more importantly, efforts to mitigate fake news inevitably move toward a regulatory model that would or could involve censorship. Pushing Internet companies, Internet service providers, and social media platforms, like Facebook, to become newspapers and edit and censor stories online would undermine all news, and the evolving democratic processes of news production and consumption, such as which are thriving online with the rise of new sources of reporting, from hyper-local news to global efforts to mine collective intelligence. The critics of fake news normally say they are not proposing censorship, but they rather consistently suggest that the Internet companies should act more like newspapers or broadcasters in authenticating and screening the news. Neither regulatory model is appropriate for the Internet, Web and social media.

Lessons from the Internet and Web’s Short History

But let’s look back. Not only is this not a new problem, it was a far greater problem in the past. (I’m not sure if I have any facts to back this up, but hear me out.)

Anyone who used the Internet and Web (invented in 1991) in the 1990s will recall that it was widely perceived as largely a huge pile of garbage. The challenge for a user was to find a useful artifact in this pile of trash. This was around the time when the World Wide Web was called the World Wide Wait, given the time it took to download a Web page. Given the challenges of finding good information in this huge garbage heap, users circulated urls (web addresses) of web pages that were worth reading.

A few key researchers developed what were called recommender sites, such as what Paul Resnick called Platforms for Internet Content Searches (PICS), which labeled sites to describe their content, such as ‘educational’ or ‘obscene’.[2] PICS could be used to censor or filter content, but the promoters of PICS saw them primarily as a way to positively recommend rather than negatively censor content, such as that labeled ‘educational’ or ‘news’. Positive recommendations of what to read versus censorship of what a central provider determined not fit to be read.

Of course, organized lists of valuable web sites evolved into some of the earliest search engines, and very rapidly, some brilliant search engines were invented that we use effortlessly now to find whatever we want to know online, such as news about an election.

The rise of fake news moves many to think we need to censor or filter more content to keep people from being misinformed. Search engines try to do this by recommending the best sites related to what a person is searching for, such as by analysis of the search terms in relation to the words and images on a page of content.

Unfortunately, as search engines developed, so did efforts to game search engines, such as techniques for optimizing a site’s visibility on the Web. Without going into detail, there has been a continuing cat and mouse game between search engines and content providers in trying to outwit each other. Some early techniques to optimize a site, such as embedding popular search terms in the background of a site that are invisible to the reader but visible to a search engine, worked for a short time. But new techniques for gaming the search engines are likely to be matched by refinements in algorithms that penalize sites that try to game the system. Overtime, these refinements of search have reduced the prominence of fake and manufactured news sites, for example, in the results of search engines.

New Social Media News Feeds

But what can we do about fake news being circulated on social media, mainly social media platforms such as Facebook, but also email. The problems are largely focused here since social media news provision is relatively less public, and newer, and not as fully developed as more mature search engines. And email is even less public. These interpersonal social networks might pose the most difficult problems, and where fake news is likely to be less visible to the wider public, tech companies, and governments – we hope and expect. Assuming the search engines used by social media for the provision of news get better, some problems will be solved. Social media platforms are working on it.[3] But the provision of information by users to other users is a complex problem for any oversight or regulation beyond self-regulation.

Professor Phil Howard’s brilliant research on computational propaganda at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) develops some novel perspectives on the role of social media in spreading fake news stories faster and farther.[4] His analysis of the problem seems right on target. The more we know about political bots and computational propaganda, the better prepared we are to identify it.

The Risks

My concern is that many of the purported remedies to fake news are worse than the problem. They will lead straight to more centralized censorship, or to regulation of social media as if they were broadcast media, newspapers, or other traditional media. The traditional media each have different regulatory models, but none of them are well suited to the Internet. You cannot regulate social media as if they were broadcasters, think of the time spent by broadcast regulators considering one complaint by viewers. You cannot hold social media liable for stories, as if they were an edited newspaper. This would have a chilling effect on speech. And so on. Until we have a regulatory model purpose built for the Internet and social media, we need to look elsewhere to protect its democratic features.

In the case of email and social media, the equivalent of recommender sites are ways in which users might be supported in choosing with whom to communicate. Whom do you friend on Facebook? Whom do you follow on Twitter? Whose email do you accept, open, read, or believe? There are already some sites that detect problematic information.[5] These could help individuals decide whether to trust particular sites or individuals. For example, I regularly receive email from people I know on the right, left and everywhere in between, and from the US and globally. As an academic, I enjoy seeing some, immediately delete others, and so forth. I find the opinions of others entertaining, informative and healthy, even though I accept very few as real hard news. I seldom if ever check or verify their posts, as I know some to be political rhetoric or propaganda and some to be well sourced. This is normally obvious on their face.

But I am trained as an academic and by nature, skeptical. So while it might sound like a limp squid, one of the only useful approaches that does not threaten the democratic value of social media and email, is the need to educate users about the need to critically assess information they are sent through email and by their friends and followers on social media. Choose your friends wisely, and that means not on the basis of agreement, but on the basis of trust. And do not have a blind faith in anything you read in a newspaper or online. Soon we will be just as amused by people saying they found a fake news story online as we have been by cartoons of someone finding a misspelled word on the Web.

Notes

[1] List of Fake News Sites: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/11/fake-facebook-news-sites-to-avoid.html

[2] Resnick, P., and Miller, J. (1996), ‘PICS: Internet Access Controls without Censorship’, Communications of the ACM, 39(10): 87-93.

[3] Walters, R. (2016), ‘Mark Zuckerberg responds to criticism over fake news on Facebook, Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/80aacd2e-ae79-11e6-a37c-f4a01f1b0fa1?sectionid=home

[4] Phil Howard: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/is-social-media-killing-democracy/

[5] B.S. Detector: http://lifehacker.com/b-s-detector-lets-you-know-when-youre-reading-a-fake-n-1789084038

 

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

News coverage of the 2016 US presidential election vividly illustrated a worrying trend. It goes well beyond the decline of the newspaper to the decline of quality journalistic reporting in favor of entertaining news commentary. Perhaps I have a romantic view of the past. Perhaps journalism may be better than ever, but let me develop this point.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the larger context in which most news organizations are facing various levels of financial trouble. The newspaper, for example, used to be quite profitable enterprises in the US, with major revenue for classifieds and other ads. The Internet has undermined the growth of revenue for newspapers, such as by providing far better options to the classified ads. With ad revenue dropping, there have been major drops in subscriptions, and the number of newspapers published. However, the growth in online news has not been generating the revenues that maintained the traditional newspaper.

However, the decline of the traditional newspaper and its business model, does not necessarily translate into a decline in news coverage. The Internet and social media provide some new sources of news, and have also lowered the costs of traditional news gathering and reporting. And it is increasingly technically possible for any reporter in the world to be read by anyone interested in the story the reporter puts online. First hand accounts are increasingly more available through social media and mobile Internet smartphones. These developments are occurring, but so are some countervailing trends.

First, there are fewer reporters on site, in the field. Some of the major world news organizations, such as Al Jazeera and CCTV, are able to bring live reporting from the sites of news developments to their viewers. But these are exceptionally well-funded news operations, and funded by state entities, which can compromise their editorial and reporting independence. Generally, first hand reporting of the news is declining except for the rising reliance on Twitter and other social media coverage picked up by the wire services and other news organizations.

Secondly, there is some evidence of a rise of churnalism, which is the uncritical publication of press releases by politicians, business organizations and government agencies. Perhaps churnalism is simply more apparent with Internet Web sites devoted to exposing it. If true, as I believe it to be, this is another symptom of a decline in the quality of reporting.

Thirdly, and most worrying to me, is the rise of surrogates as major news sources. To the credit of CNN, for example, which makes a great use of these sources, they at least call them surrogates. During the election, CNN rolled out Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and many other candidates’ surrogates. Decades ago, I recall some early discussions of concerns over the major news organizations interviewing journalists as sources, rather than the actual protagonists and eyewitnesses to events. This was widely criticized as a poor substitute for authentic news reporting. Perhaps people of interest to the news reporter are more difficult to interview, more inaccessible, but for whatever reasons, there is a major growth in the reliance on journalists several steps removed from the actual actors who are the subject of the news.

There is a silver lining to the increased reliance on paid surrogates. They are trained and polished presenters, unlike many of the actual subjects of the news. There is no doubt that many of the surrogates are entertaining, bright, articulate, and knowledgeable individuals. But they are not so much reporting the news, but trying to interpret stories in ways that throw a positive light on their candidate. They can only provide commentaries on the news, most of which we already know, and from their staged point of view – a surrogate for a particular candidate. They are the ultimate extension of the so-called spin doctors for the candidates, such as immediately following a debate. They give us a perpetual debate of the spin-doctors, but not news. Whether print or TV journalists – the distinction is disappearing as the star surrogates move across platforms – the focus is on entertaining discussions of the ‘breaking news’ reported by others. The print journalists that are good on TV will be the most read in the papers, and that is likely to privilege engaging delivery over original substance.

The surrogates provide the greatest example of the decline of quality journalistic coverage. Journalists are not only becoming the sources of the news, many steps removed from the subjects and news events that they comment on, but also not from an objective, disinterested position. So you can hear a surrogate on a news panel ‘report’ that they had just had (presumably during a commercial) a call from one of their candidate’s supporters, and use that call as the basis of their sense of how the campaign was going. th

News has moved from the provision of information to entertainment as a means to reduce costs and increase viewers and readers. Journalists have moved from seeking to objectively report what is happening by distancing themselves from the hard news, being on stage rather than in the field, and slanting their story to fit their surrogate role.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there should be serious and careful discussion of all the institutions that brought us to two candidates with such unfavorable ratings among a worryingly divided electorate, but those institutions should go beyond the parties and the primary process, to also include critical assessment of the role of surrogate news in fostering our current distrust of the news, government, and the political process most generally. The public is – somehow – putting up with surrogates for real high-quality news. Its entertaining.

PBS Newshour Hands Down

In the aftermath of the primaries and caucuses in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and the bombings in Brussels, I – like many – was riveted to the news. Watching CNN coverage, then PBS Newshour, reinforced my belief that PBS is head and shoulders above CNN in the range of news covered, the reporting of facts on the ground v personal opinions, and balance. All three Republican candidates and Bernie Sanders, as well as Hillary Clinton, were covered well. PBS remains tied to a tradition of fairness, balance and accuracy that is clearly demonstrated at times such as this. More for less indeed. Well done #PBSNewhour url