The Toxic Tie Between Social Media and Journalism

Social media wrought a sea change in the journalism industry, changing form, delivery mechanism, and content style. To survive, many mastheads transformed into social media and digital outlets, creating new provocative content to foster engagement online and generate revenue. The end result has been polarizing, less factual, and in general, toxic for our society.

Many traditional print newspapers did not adapt in time and shuttered their doors, a process that continues to this day. Surviving mastheads adapted to the social format.

To do that, social network algorithms must be triggered to serve content, in turn causing content that’s engineered to create shares, comments, and replies. Clicks equate to page views, which equate to new readers, advertising dollars, and in the case of paywalled publications, new subscribers. Journalism evolved its content form to engage rather than inform.

The new digital content leans towards sensationalized opinion-driven content that provokes clicks in social networks, like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and more. Whether incendiary, vapid, partisan, or over-wrought, the new journalism bates targeted public audiences.

Why label this as toxic? One could say the turn to digital is a natural evolution.

If you consider the partisan tribal nature of today’s mastheads, small and large, it’s hard to ignore the impact. A good portion of the public cannot discern facts in a narrative designed to provoke engagement first.

Consider today’s political crisis, the increased social division between urban and rural communities, and the significant race tensions in the country. The current outcomes are in part due to the way content is crafted.

Bari Weiss Burns the NY Times Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge shot in 2016.

If you read Bari Weiss’s resignation from the New York Times last week, you might have noticed a secondary thread revolving around social media. In her conservative rant against liberal media, Weiss chastized the New York Times editorial leadership for letting Twitter dominate its content strategy and direction.

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space,” writes Weiss.

It should be noted that Weiss is a conservative writer who could be accused of creating similar polarized content to bate readers. Oh the irony of a conservative complaining about these tactics now, but not when it catalyzed their rise to power. But this matter aside, Weiss’s point illustrates the general issue of journalism’s toxic tie to social networks to socialize their content.

Is it really a surprise that the nation’s most successful paywalled masthead caters to social media to generate clicks, page views, and ultimately advertising dollars? If it works for cable TV networks like Fox News, it can work for newspapers.

While the NY Times is better than most in grounding its stories with real facts, the masthead has a left-leaning slant in many of its stories and opinions. In fact, hiring Weiss was an attempt to resolve bias and offer a contrary position.

I chose to use the NY Times as an example, but I could have just as easily noted the Wall Street Journal for its blatant conservatism (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns the Wall Street as well as Fox News and other properties). There are many, more aggressive examples on both sides of the aisle.

The Ideal of Journalism vs Reality

Photo taken by me in Provence, France (2009)

Back to Weiss and her accusation of a predetermined slant from the NY Times to generate more clicks. Weiss believes in the romantic vision of a journalist who investigates, reports the facts, and doesn’t determine story outcomes before they are revealed, readers' news consumption appetites be damned.

So what’s wrong with that?

It doesn’t work within the confines of the digital media space. Hundreds of newspapers have gone out of business, failing to adapt to the new digital reality.

Let’s be clear. Social media broke the old model of journalism more than a decade ago when it gave individuals a means to circumnavigate the fourth estate, as the press so fondly thinks of itself. This theory of independent voices that could rise up served digital media with independent voices, but social networks harnessed the voices with algorithms and turned them into popular content vehicles to drive advertising revenue. Big money-driven social media created an unfair digital environment that caters to extremism and stifles many independent voices.

Journalism caters to social networks because, without them, mastheads cannot garner new readers or retain a portion of its old ones. Most new readers are driven to a masthead through online word of mouth via social networks. If an algorithm will only source your story based on share and comment velocity, and a likelihood to generate more clicks, then you must play the game.

Beyond Weiss’s own political bias, her complaints suffer from a disconnected understanding of media dynamics.

Digital Literacy

2019. a lone man reads the newspaper.

How do we resolve the toxic tie between journalism and social media? One area to rally around is education focusing on digital literacy.

In the modern computing world, there is a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” If people accept singular points of view from their digital media outlets as facts without qualifying the information, then humans who consumer garbage will spout garbage.

Citizens need to better understand and question the media it consumes so that we can formulate our own opinion about the veracity of the data presented to us. Assume that incomplete reporting is the new norm.

In 2011, I wrote a blog on the “Fifth Estate,” the empowered independent voices who originally disrupted the traditional journalism model. Even then, lesser quality digital content was becoming an issue for society.

“Education initiatives across the globe should focus on how to teach people to digest information intelligently. We need an empowered, functional Fifth Estate, and a critical aspect of that is digital literacy. .. Nonprofits and companies like Internews Network are working towards this laudable goal. We need to go further, and make digital literacy and publishing a core tenant of any child’s education.”

Even with more educated citizens, the toxic polarized soup created by the new yellow journalism won’t change anytime soon. After all, this is about money and business survival for mastheads. Perhaps looking at the root cause is needed: The social networks that mastheads rely on to disseminate hot stories and generate revenue.

Broken engagement-driven algorithms create widespread toxic circles. And until social networks evolve through their own accord or regulation, the toxic soup that spins will continue to poison our information outlets.

Digital marketing pioneer, professor, consultant, and photographer.

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