OXFORD – In the debate over the future of journalism, “fake news” has taken center stage, with storylines featuring a ranting American president, Russian communication “bots,” and betrayal and subterfuge competing for public attention. But in an era of diminishing profits and shrinking audiences, is fake news really the biggest threat that traditional media face?
In a news environment increasingly prone to hyperventilation, it can be difficult to separate fact from fabricated or deliberately skewed content shared via social media. The proliferation of “bots” – computer programs that automatically spread disinformation – has blurred these lines further. And as the methods of manipulation multiply, the problem is only likely to worsen.
And yet the near-constant focus on fake news has distracted many in the industry from more serious challenges confronting professional journalism. The erosion of business models and growing dependence on third-party digital distributors – like Facebook and Google – have handcuffed news organizations and cut deeply into their profits. Worse, audiences no longer trust the information presented to them. This suggests that the problem is bigger than fake news.
In fact, large, traditional, or legacy media organizations still trump social media as trusted sources. As the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2017 revealed, 40% of news consumers say that established media organizations – The New York Times, for example – accurately differentiate fact from fiction. For social media, this share is only 24%.
But this also means that 60% of news consumers regard the legacy media as being careless with facts. That statistic alone should be a cause for grave concern to everyone in the industry.
According to the report – which surveyed some 70,000 Internet users in 36 countries – 29% of respondents said they were avoiding news altogether. For many, this was either because producers’ preference for negative stories put them in a bad mood, or because they viewed the reporting as politically slanted and therefore untrustworthy.
Without trust, there is no audience; and without an audience, there is no business. If the survey’s results are representative of broader trends, one of the world’s most important pillars of democracy – a free and open press – is in jeopardy.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In the digital era, trust deficits have affected most major institutions, from political parties and big companies to religious organizations and universities. This could be a sign of a more informed and critical citizenry; or, more likely, it could be a response to feeling overwhelmed by choice and powerless in a complex world.
But what has changed for news organizations is that, thanks to social media, they no longer have a monopoly on holding the powerful to account. On the contrary, they have come to be identified with the powerful – part of a media-business-political elite divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. Having become a target of popular anger, journalism will need to “disrupt” itself to regain credibility and restore audiences’ trust.
To this end, media organizations should take at least six steps. For starters, news outlets must set their own agendas, rather than wasting resources on pursuing someone else’s. The international investigation that led to the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers are brilliant examples of journalism that is relevant and interesting – two fundamental criteria that all reporting should meet.
Second, reporters have a responsibility to their audiences to analyze what powerful actors are doing, rather than what they are saying. As the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently observed, coverage of US President Donald Trump has focused narrowly on his words, at the expense of his policy.
Third, the media must become better listeners. Journalists’ distinction between “reporting” and “reporting on the ground” highlights the reality that a sizable proportion of newsroom staff never leave their desks. Journalists don’t necessarily do this by choice; many are glued to their screens because their companies lack resources, or force them to follow and report on twitter feeds. In a sense, reporters’ behavior is merely a symptom of an editorial pathology.
Fourth, news organizations must engage audiences – talking to them, not down to them. Very often, the news cycle is driven by assumptions about what viewers or readers might like, rather than what they actually want. Diversity in a newsroom is vital to broadening the relevance of its coverage.
Fifth, in the rush to experiment with new forms of storytelling, some media companies are forgetting their mission. News outlets should forego expensive, flashy projects if they do little to further audiences’ understanding of a story.
Finally, rebuilding trust will require a new definition of news itself. When audiences feel overwhelmed by information and complexity, the response can be to tune out. The media must give people a reason to tune back in. (One example: positive news is dramatically undervalued in today’s media environment.)
If traditional media outlets allow themselves to be defined by the fake-news debate, they, too, will be overwhelmed. So long as social media companies optimize for advertising revenue, their algorithms will tend to reward the extremes, and news organizations will waste valuable resources battling disinformation.
A better approach would be to make news less boring. Reputable media companies have always sought to capitalize on facts: the scoop, the exclusive interview, the probing investigation. Truth, like trust, is a commodity. The future of the industry depends on getting better at producing it.
Alexandra Borchardt is Director of Strategic Development at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
By Alexandra Borchardt