Of the thousands of articles and comments that followed the Paris attacks in November, there was one that went relatively unnoticed. Rather than analysing the violence and repercussions, it chose instead to counter a particular accusation levelled at media behaviour and coverage.
Writing on medium.com, journalist and designer Martin Belam argued against those who had asserted that terrorist attacks outside of Europe had not been covered by media outlets across the world, stating that they quite blatantly had, but few people (in the West at least) had been paying any attention.
“Search Google News and you will find pages and pages of reports of the attacks in Beirut,” wrote Belam. “Pages and pages and pages. Over 1,286 articles in fact – lots of which pre-date the attacks in Paris. The sheer number of people who will, though, happily claim that the media hasn’t reported it does my head in.
“Yes, there absolutely is room for debate about the proportionality of coverage of an incident like this compared to something like the Paris attacks. But to say that the media don’t cover terrorism attacks outside of Europe is a lie. They do. But as anyone working in the news will tell you, if you look at your analytics, people don’t read them very much. It’s absolutely fine to debate the ethical and moral implications of that, both for media organisations and the audience, but it simply isn’t the case that people don’t know about terrorism outside of Europe because it isn’t reported on.”
The debate is indicative of the current state of media and the consumption of news. We have never had more access to information, yet we are arguably more ignorant than ever before. Our consumption of news is becoming narrower and narrower, governed by who we follow on Twitter and Facebook and our choice of preferred media, many of which peddle a particular world view and ignore alternative voices.
“The media landscape has changed dramatically since I started out in newspapers 20 years ago,” says Alistair Crighton, a Gulf-based media consultant and former editor. “Then, as an editor, you were pretty much a curator of news for your audience. In Britain, our newspapers generally had a political agenda. But basic news would be covered in a fairly neutral manner and opposing opinions would usually be given space.
“The rise of online scrapped that. People choose what news feeds they want. This led to increasing polarisation of news providers – they no longer see that they have to cover all bases and instead aim for lowest common denominator audiences on both sides. The consumer, on the other hand, tailors news feeds and opinions to those channels and personalities that reflect and reinforce their own views. This happens on the right and left – and the result is two mutually exclusive echo chambers, each sustained by their own, entirely separate tweets, retweets, links and shares.”
In July, the United States-based Pew Research Center released a study conducted in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which found that “clear majorities of Twitter (63 per cent) and Facebook users (63 per cent) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family”. That share, it said, had “increased substantially from 2013, when about half of users (52 per cent of Twitter users, 47 per cent of Facebook users) said they got news from the social platforms”.
Although the study revealed that Twitter users are exposed to a wider variety of information, these findings come at a time when social media platforms and tech giants are increasing their emphasis on news. Apple, for example, has abandoned its four-year attempt to dominate digital editions of magazines and newspapers through its Newsstand platform, instead opting to aggregate editorial content itself via its Apple News app. In October, Facebook launched its news offering, Instant Articles, with publishers such as The New York Times and BuzzFeed on board. Instant Articles, however, keeps the user inside Facebook, thereby putting publishers in a position that has been described as “serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns”. Also in October, Twitter’s ‘Project Lightning’ launched as ‘Moments’, making it easier to browse for the biggest stories without having to follow particular accounts or search for hashtags.
In theory, this should all be celebrated. More emphasis on news, more emphasis on knowledge and information. However, there is a very real danger that we are heading even further away from diversity towards a more blinkered and ignorant world view.
Facebook uses algorithms based on past behaviour to promote or downgrade the content it delivers to consumers. The more you engage with a certain content creator or broadcaster, the more likely you are to see future content from such publishers. Consumers are also more likely to engage with those who are like-minded and are naturally less likely to follow broadcasters they don’t agree with. And as technology evolves, relevance will become the priority, meaning less exposure to what individuals don’t agree with.
As Emma Kelly, a showbiz reporter for the Daily Star Online, wrote on medium.com: “‘Why didn’t the media cover *insert country here*?’ appears to actually be shorthand for ‘Why wasn’t this story shared extensively on my Facebook feed?’”
“The beauty of social media, when it first arrived, was the way in which it showcased pluralism, exposing users to many world views,” says Meredith Carson, group director of content at Resolution MENA. “Today, however, algorithm-based content distribution is narrowing media consumption and this is a point to which we should, as marketers, but more importantly as humans, pay close attention. Although intended as a means to display relevant content – in other words content in which we are interested – these algorithms run the risk of creating among users singular world views that are devoid of exposure to others.”
Algorithms, prejudice and consumer laziness are not the only problem. Online publishers are governed by clicks and hits and the need to secure advertising revenue. If a story isn’t popular, it simply won’t be given extended coverage. In some cases, it will cease to be covered at all. The end result is often an emphasis on popularity with world news receiving less proportional coverage. In many instances, this comes down to people’s unwillingness to pay for content. If they are unwilling to pay – and even install ad-blockers, thereby killing a publisher’s only source of revenue – the money and incentive to cover a broader spectrum of news is reduced.
“That the news is made by media and it decides what should be given publicity and what should be ignored is now a given,” says Bikram Vohra, a media consultant and columnist. “The fact is the yardstick is arbitrary and intrinsically dangerous. It also corrals the reader into a mental stockade and reduces him or her to a severely limited feed of pap and pre-conceived but vivid imagery. That this restriction comes at a time when information flow is a deluge and there is so much choice is a paradox that underscores how much of a bog the fourth estate has become.
“There are four reasons for this collapse in integrity, much of it initiated by greed, intrigue, wilfulness and the encouragement of an overall arrogance by its practitioners. Since we now decide the news, its level of importance and what you should think, it is the media that makes the menu. Heck. If horror, terror and the blood and gore of caste, colour and creed sells, sell it. Add to it dollops of prejudice, hatred, misery and fear and you are home free.”
According to Vohra, the four reasons for this collapse in integrity are as follows:
The shifting plates of the profession
“To a great extent journalism and its six pillars of wisdom (why, when, who, which, where, what) have moved into the realm of ‘agenda advocacy’. We push towards a designated and specific goal, not go where the truth takes us. Mass communications is just that, sapping the end-user’s stamina by zapping them with bullet points and abbreviated pre-digested pap. Over time, the end-user’s capacity to absorb data is severely restricted to stunted sentences. The quick fix is all. This suits us immensely because they have now been tasered into submission. Even when they question us on an issue, it is according to our diktat. Today’s media is neither the voice of the people, the keeper at the gate or the watchdog of propriety. It is just a business.”
The flood of options
“Remember the time when we had three choices for ice cream: vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. They sufficed for years. Now, the list is long, confusing and absurd. Who eats pumpkin ice cream or frozen sesame seed and mulberry? Much the same occurs with the dispensation of news. It comes in all shapes and sizes and has breached the banks of conventional journalism, what with opinion and reportage mingling in muddy eddies until the sanctity of both has been destroyed. There is so much information flung at them that the reader/viewer has switched off and their relationship with the news is desultory at best. They skate over it because in-depth, ironically, has sunk. One can even say that advertising and news are now not so strange bedfellows and the first commands the second. As garishly marketed ‘masscomm’ grabs the stage, the factual has become dull by comparison.”
“The second element segues seamlessly into the third. The immediacy demanded by
radio, television and news websites and their channels of communication make a pastiche of the news and function on pure guesswork. In multiples every day. Take the Paris attacks. The casualty figures bounced up and down depending on what news frequency a person was switched into, as was the hunt for the killers. News now comes in staccato bursts packaged in contradictions. This bombardment compels the reader to just give up on it and make their own figures and stats. Ergo, one more lie to the pile. So we end with X opinions all based on false premises.”
“The frenetic pace of sending information and the need to maintain circulation and TRPs and eyeballs, and hits, has made the investigative element and the painstaking research that went with it laughably redundant. Where you once spent a month fine-tuning a story, now you spend five minutes. And where checking facts are concerned, the devil take the hind leg. There are no follow ups, no end-of-the-story revelations, just half spun clods of sensation often conjured out of thin air and left unfinished. So heavy is the deluge that there is no space left for accountability. This approach has wiped out the thinker in the pack and left a majority target audience on whom nothing really sticks. It is all transient and has a sell by date counted in minutes. Why would it stick? It has no adhesive of authenticity to back it.”
Is there a solution? A way of ensuring – or at least attempting to ensure – that our consumption of news widens rather than narrows.
“If I knew the solution, I’d be rich,” says Crighton. “Will the newer business models of the Buzzfeeds and similar have longevity? Will legacy media adopt those models, or retreat behind paywalls, as the Murdoch newspapers have done – or even just disappear?
“The rise of social media as the most important news and advertising channel is having a massive impact. Facebook’s intentions to work with the biggest names in new and old media to deliver news straight to your feed may go some way to reassuring the bigger, older names that they have a future, and may also ensure a more balanced news feed for consumers whether they want that or not.”
Vohra, however, isn’t convinced.
“I think the horse has run away from that stable,” he says. “We will just have to go a full circle until the overwhelming white noise generated by media suffers diminishing returns and finally dies out and is finally replaced by good, sound journalism and the six ‘W’s’ are made the pillars of our profession again. One can hope.”
“In a world where 140 characters tell the story, headlines will prevail over analysis, two-minute news clips will be enough investigation and, with algorithms, we will have our interests over-served with the rest of the world’s happenings reduced to background noise,” adds Eric Mirabel, regional executive director of marketing at Omnicom Media Group MENA. “It is a choice for us all to make: simplicity and speed, or depth and breadth.”
* Published in Campaign, November 2015
Photograph: Guillaume Payen/Zuma Press/Corbis