A variety of recent high-profile media stories have demonstrated the extent to which news reporting has been altered by the power of social media. Traditional journalism is scarcely recognizable—so we are forced to question what circumstances give rise to traditional journalism in the first place. The consumer internet has changed these circumstances, dragging old media into its web of twisted economic incentives. And yet, perhaps bizarrely, real reporting lives on in its best and oldest form—in newer outlets that are exclusively online.
Not All That Is Reported Is News
What is news? We might suggest events or topics of social or political importance, affecting large numbers of people, or smaller numbers of famous people, great joys, terrible tragedies, etc. These events are newsworthy and hence the news media reports them. But this ignores the role the news media itself plays in making events newsworthy by reporting on them. Sometimes this can be done entirely self-consciously for the purposes of investigative journalism, sensationalism or even comic effect. But it can also be done because the event or topic in question is misunderstood from the outset, leading to a spiral of damaging misinformation. This danger clearly exists, but we need to know more about the environment of news reporting to evaluate the extent to which we ought to worry about it. What are the incentives to report? Increasingly, the main incentive is to collect advertising revenue by gathering clicks on social media. This imposes a competitive time pressure, which interferes with ensuring relevance and accuracy a great deal.
Take, for example, The Momo Challenge. This involved a widespread panic that children all over the world were being encouraged to commit suicide by a personality conveyed as a creepy Japanese sculpture. This is probably best described as a viral hoax, which wouldn’t be of any obvious interest, were it not for the fact that its virality was due to the breathlessly irresponsible reporting of media organizations, who were more concerned with having something to say about the story than with saying something accurate: see, for example, the responses of CBS, Newsweek and the BBC. In a tragi-comic turn of events, even entities other than news media—everything from YouTube to actual police departments—were forced to comment. This, of course, jacked up the virality even further. Plenty of people debunked this nonsense. It wasn’t difficult to do. (I recommend Taylor Lorenz’s and Philip DeFranco’s in-depth summaries.) But you are guaranteed to get more clicks and ad revenue reporting on a pandemic of teenage suicide than suggesting that maybe—just maybe—no such thing is happening.
But it gets worse. We needn’t look far to find journalistic standards slipping well past simple misreporting of events. We now see news organizations arguing publicly that the fact of their reporting on an incident is itself what makes it newsworthy, and hence excuses any misreporting—not in so many words, obviously, but in that spirit.
The Covington Incident is arguably a perfect example of a breathless rush to judgment and clicks—easily debunked, but viral nonetheless. The student at the center of the furore, Nicholas Sandmann, is suing the Washington Post for $250m. The Post’s editors acknowledge in an editor’s note that evidence emerged “either contradicting or failing to confirm accounts provided in that story”—but they fail to mention the role they played in marshaling the online mobbing of a private minor. This point is set to be contested. The Atlantic reports that the Washington Post will mount “a vigorous defense” and quotes several law professors who believe that the key issue in the case will be Sandmann’s status (or not) as a public figure. William Youmans of George Washington University has suggested that
what the Post will argue is that once the video got out and went viral, he became an involuntary public figure at the center of a news story. The Post only picked up the story because it was getting wide social-media attention. In other cases, unknown individuals became involuntary public figures just for being at the center of viral social-media content.
The question of whether Sandmann is a public figure is vital because it will determine whether or not the Washington Post is liable solely for negligent false statements (if he is not), or for making such statements with reckless disregard (if he is). Think about this. A media organization can catalyze a harassment campaign against a private individual and be immune from the consequences of any false statements made in doing so because the enormity of the harassment campaign turned the individual into a public figure. They could argue that they only made the false statements because everybody else was doing so too. So once any media organization turns a private individual into a public figure by catalyzing a harassment campaign against him, every other outlet can join in. This isn’t reckless disregard, it’s professionalism.
This does not seem like how journalism ought to work. What we might call the public sphere has been dramatically transformed.
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
In his classic, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas details the rise and fall of the idea of the public sphere—a place neither governmental nor purely private, but something in between—from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Though we would consider the public sphere very much alive, our conception of it is surely very different from Habermas’s—it has since been fully transformed several times. Habermas’s grander thesis was that the environment of intellectual discourse and the media through which it is published are highly contingent on economics, technology and culture. We might, at any point, mistakenly take our current environment for granted, and not even notice its peculiarities—provided the environment doesn’t change. But any change will then come as a severe shock. Habermas laments the erosion of his conception of the public sphere, by the first widely distributed newspapers, the progenitors of modern journalism:
By means of variegated type and layout and ample illustration, reading is made easy at the same time that its field of spontaneity in general is restricted by serving up the material as a ready-made convenience, patterned and pre-digested. Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears from behind the veil of internal decisions concerning the selection and presentation of material. In addition, the share of political or politically relevant news changes. Public affairs, social problems, economic matters, education and health … are not only pushed into the background by ‘immediate reward news’ … but, as the characteristic label already indicates, are also read less and more rarely.
Habermas could easily be talking about our social media: it rewards hot takes, soundbites, scandal and the igniting of passions over considered, reasoned, researched discussion.
Yet reasoned, researched discussion still exists. Ironically, much of the best of it is being provided by media outlets native to the internet, even as the internet entices centuries-old media organizations to take part in a race to the bottom. Konstantin Kisin recently penned a remarkable article for Quillette comparing Joe Rogan to Walter Cronkite—with good reason. Rogan has space to have lengthy conversations, which tease out every detail a topic can afford, rather than chasing soundbites in the brief windows of time between commercials. But Kisin builds up to a more profound observation, too: Rogan is accountable. Discussing an interview with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, which Rogan’s audience deemed far too lenient, Kisin elaborates:
Unlike the world’s leading publications, which frequently cover up or even double down on their failings—the Covington kids story, the Jussie Smollett hoax—Rogan acknowledged his faults and not only invited Twitter executives back, but also brought along an expert to question them. It is worth noting that Tim Pool was picked not only for his knowledge, but also because he had criticized Rogan himself. Podcasters and YouTubers are vulnerable to their audiences in a way that monolithic media institutions are not. This vulnerability makes them responsive: it is a strength, not a weakness.
Side With The Audience
Tim Pool likes to recall, with equal comedy and horror, what he was told at a digital media company where he previously worked: side with the audience. Normally, there would be nothing wrong with this sentiment. There’s a reason I predominantly write for Quillette and Areo and not for the Guardian or Breitbart: I want my audience to be receptive to my ideas. Not in perfect agreement—what a bore!—but receptive.
But the sentiment is problematic when we consider the economic environment in which it will be applied. Thirty years ago, the Washington Post could evaluate the demographics of its physical-paper-buying audience and cultivate its editorial takes appropriately. It accepted letters to the editor and had the discretion to publish many, ideally those that were themselves well written, advanced debate on some issue of interest and encouraged the paper’s staff to do a better job of addressing the issue. This encouraged the readership to feel involved—sided with—in a calm and responsible manner. If the reporters had a scoop, the paper could prepare it delicately, over a long period of time, leading to, in one case, “maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.”
Social media has disrupted nearly all these economic circumstances and the public sphere has been structurally transformed. There is no clear readership demographic—anybody can read the paper, and hopefully will. The lowest common denominator is played to. All letters to the editor are published, almost no matter what they say. There is rarely a real scoop to be investigated and developed, since most information is immediately disseminated to the entire world. The paper can still side with the audience, but this now means something very different.
It means rapidly produced, poorly researched, maximally outraged clickbait garbage. It means making the kind of absurd proclamations I outlined above as the rationale for obviously awful reporting decisions. The audience may no longer mean loyal customers who value your reporting—it may mean anybody who stumbles upon an article pumped to the top of her social media feed by algorithms that optimize for tribal rage. Siding with the audience may no longer mean flattering its preconceptions, but still reporting well—it may mean igniting its tribal rage.
Certainly, it doesn’t have to mean this, as Rogan, Pool and others demonstrate. And certainly not across the entirety of a news organization—there are many fine reporters at the Washington Post. But, given the dramatic changes in the economic environment of news reporting, this, by and large, is what siding with the audience has come to mean. On the off chance this reaches anybody in a position to begin turning the ship around, please consider who your audience really is and what siding with it really means. Better yet, don’t side with the audience at all: side with the truth.