A crisis of relevance

Even if the media’s financial and technological problems were fixed, does the news still matter?

Illustration by Eugenia Loli

To borrow a meme, what a time it is for journalists to be alive. We are supposed to be at our best in adversity. Our vitality comes from our relentless digging and prodding at the mendacious and corrupt. We expose their flaws and our values simultaneously. Surely now, with a presidential administration so seemingly bent on implosion, the industry should be in its pomp. The powerful, global thirst for real-time detail on an explosive, vitally important story. The potential for uncovering a scandal of such significance it echoes round the world because our politics, our trade, our media are all omnipresent. We are visible and accountable—our mistakes are corrected in minutes, not days—in ways newsprint and a handful of satellite linkups alone never could be. There is, in short, so much news, and as a profession we could justifiably argue we are better at covering it than ever before.

And yet we have never been more willfully misunderstood. The feeling that whatever we produce will be torn apart by those who do not wish it to be true is no longer our private paranoia. One of the things I’ve long admired about journalism is that its practitioners are never short on rigorous self-examination. Whether it’s our collective flagellation or nauseating mutual congratulation, we’re terrifically good at paying very close attention to what we do, often to the detriment of all else. But in addition to the sheer effort of covering the news, the mechanics of the news industry—its economics, formats, and distribution platforms—have sucked up all the oxygen over the last 10 years, leaving little for a discussion about whether what we’re doing still matters to the rest of the world.

ICYMI: ESPN suspended Jemele Hill. We now know the network’s 1st and foremost goal

 

I well remember the day we at The Guardian used a live blog for the first time to tell a news story. What it allowed was immediacy, or what felt like it. I remember explaining to countless journalists that the sacred pyramid structure we had been taught was the wrong way round for the internet. That “tell me what’s happening now” was as important as ordering the information. There was the excitement and feeling of a revolution when we realized we could tell a complex story such as the Gulf oil spill—with its environmental, scientific, business, legal, and political implications—in a single article, while readers could comment and participate.

Suddenly, text journalism felt rounded and explanatory and live and relevant and all the words that add up to valuable. We became experts in reaching vast audiences all over the world, at targeting and distributing content, at SEO and framing tweets and making sure our work found you if there was the remotest chance you might be interested. As, of course, did everyone else. On Twitter, everyone’s a live blogger. Come the Oscars, the Super Bowl, the finale of The Bachelor, it’s fastest fingers first. We complain our feeds are filled with 54 people all tweeting the same play, frock-horror, bad joke, and roll our eyes at the laggard who comes in 55th, but this is also what’s happened to our news coverage.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

It brings out the worst in us. We inevitably contradict each other in our rush to be the first to inform. Then comes the flood of hot takes, as inevitable as the backlash, the corrections, the frustration of the audience, no longer able to discern fact from opinion, and rendered increasingly uninterested in the distinction.

Illustration by Eugenia Loli

Some of the blame, while unfocused, is fair. We have collectively created a massively diverse and proliferating “news agenda.” This sounds like a good thing. Better than a singular and restrictive news agenda, right? Except that the thrill we first got from realizing how timely and relevant we could be to our audience—we can demonstrably be applying the full force of our coverage to the thing you care about right now—was, it turns out, too thrilling.

We know by now the horror of real-time coverage of any breaking atrocity: dividing our resources between scene of carnage, perpetrator of carnage, victims of carnage, and, certainly at BuzzFeed News, exploding the many myths that spring up in the aftermath. Transparency is how we earn trust, and being transparent and timely is an incredibly valuable service in the face of chaos and confusion. Those who invent fake news have faster fingers than those who report out the truth. Myths take hold at pace. Some of it is poor reporting, published too quickly. Some of it comes from political extremists inventing facts that fit their narrative. Much of it, soul-destroyingly, is mendacious. After the bombing in Manchester at an Ariana Grande concert, teens shared fake stories of missing friends for lols and RTs.

ICYMI: You might’ve seen the Times‘s Weinstein story. But did you miss the bombshell published days after?

Of course they did. Increasingly, that’s how they see the world—a never-ending dare to assert the biggest falsehood with the loudest amp. If the nation’s leaders can stand up and say black is white, that their crowd is the biggest ever, or that anyone who disagrees with them is lying, then so too can you, young person. Brilliantly, everyone can then put the blame on the media for the way it transmits the message. Somehow, the batting back and forth of lies is on us. Like something from the Marvel Universe, it cannot be confined. The joy of being relevant burst out of the newsroom and became a tool of the political machine. Newspaper proprietors—no saints—used to wield tremendous influence over politicians. Now media outlets perfectly align themselves with political parties. All while we were worrying that fashion brands would launch their own magazines and take their advertising back.

 

So naturally, journalism is having a relevance crisis. Everyone else is utterly polarized, why wouldn’t the Fourth Estate be just as divided? Journalism as we used to know it was split as to whether it was an honest trade or an honorable profession. In the era of sharing and peer-to-peer publishing, we have formed two new, distinct groups.

The first might be characterized by a production line of mysteriously named sites from distant ends of the political spectrum that can create a headline with which your most maddening relative passionately agrees and place it atop a report that may or may not bear out the headline. This stuff, enthusiastically shared until it no longer matters where it came from, drives reporters mad. It’s somehow deliberately untrue yet not quite enough to totally dismiss. It plays perfectly into what someone wants to be true and it clears a near enough barrier, so we collectively ignore it and hope it goes away.

This confirmation-bias journalism is proliferating, it’s quite profitable, and it’s destroying trust. And the practice is not confined to Macedonian teenagers. Generally, no one recognizes the name of the publisher of this stuff, but thanks to platform dominance, no one notices our storied brand names as much, either. In the UK we can, if we’re honest, draw a line directly from the politically slanted MSM news to the headlines populating our Facebook feeds. In the US, Jon Stewart gleefully labeled himself “fake news” long before the term took on a sinister cast. We can, if we’re feeling a bit superior, simply dismiss it as the work of bad actors. But confirmation bias is viral and the lure is increasingly proving too great for a few of those struggling storied brands.

 

Somehow, the batting back and forth of lies is on us. Like something from the Marvel Universe, it cannot be confined.

 

My boss’s boss, a bright young man named Jonah Peretti, recently sent me a story he’d found via Facebook published by one of our UK peers. “Is this true?” he asked. It turned out to have been loosely based on some original journalism by one of our reporters. The follow-up had taken the reporting, removed all the context, and stuck a headline on it saying “UK to shut down internet,” or something equally measured. Clearly, the version with the not-true headline had gone viral and even my perspicacious boss’s boss could no longer tell it had originally been our nuanced story. Was it true? Well, not really, no. Not anymore.

At the other side of journalism’s divide, we have the genuine scoop. Conscientiously reported and edited by newsroom professionals whom you know or work with, these rare pieces, reflecting meticulous craftwork and long hours that arrived to rounds of congratulatory applause, were once what we used to just call journalism. But to understand where they sit alongside the confirmation-bias industry, we might now think of them as artisanal journalism.

It might help to think of the trajectory of theater as a popular art form. First it was for the masses, often coarse and rarely grand, secretly attended by royalty, available to all from the stands. Over time, more elite, fetishized grandeur accompanied the spending of a lot of money—the pinnacle might be a performance of Aida at the pyramids (or a launch party paid for by Harvey Weinstein). Once you’ve established everyone’s credentials and purity of intent, we can apply for foundation funding.

I can think of a few peak artisanal journalism providers and so can you. Those productions are so rich, so fulfilling, so important they will win a prize every time, but by god they are not quick and they are not cheap. We can, if we’re being ungenerous or feeling ungracious about our rivals, dismiss this as a niche fetish. “It’s feted, but it cannot be accused of being relevant to many people’s lives,” is how artisanal journalism can be put in its place. Meanwhile, no matter how well received, your audience on social media will still respond “is this true?” Or “proof?” Or even better, the unironic “important if true.”

 

No one sets out to produce journalism to confirm bias or fulfill the wish of a deranged relation. No one sets out to produce handcrafted, organic, unread journalism, either. We’re simply attracted to these poles because that’s where the audiences have congregated—one massive and rowdy, the other small but affluent.

ICYMI: The first reporter to arrive at Vegas gunman’s house has covered the story in many ways–except one

It seems just as naive to say you believe in the virtue of journalism as to claim there is integrity in the arts or that some facts are indisputable. I believe that audiences see the difference between properly reported, compelling stories and nonsense. I have faith that entertainment is one thing and information is another. I know and see every day that an act of terror or a national tragedy will provoke an immediate demand for information, the answering of questions, and holding to account of politicians. That change can be effected by outrage generated by enterprising reporting.

Equally, I believe in the old-fashioned twin forces of the market and regulation. Quality advertisers are again beginning to demand their branding sit next to quality content in an environment they feel proud to be seen in, rather than slumming it in a sticky dive bar. Some governments, having felt the chill winds of propaganda unleashed, are demanding regulation of platforms. Some massive platforms are beginning to see the virtues of acting to promote the true over the, er, not true.

 

Relevance is earned by a magical combination of diligent work, timeliness, and impact.

 

There is no simple answer to reclaiming relevance in the face of bombastic assertion and straight-out lies. After Brexit and Trump, the Germans approached the problem of internet mendacity and the rise of the far right in a rigorous and united fashion. You might say that all four estates united to consciously dial down the language around immigration, to rigorously fact check false claims, and to fund expensive policies to mollify the disenchanted.

Effective, but we know well where joining forces between politicians and the media ends. We’re going to have to do it for ourselves, I suspect. Hitting the place where every story matters is impossible; if we knew how to make our important reporting about fire risks in tower blocks go viral before the fire, we would. Relevance is earned by a magical combination of diligent work, timeliness, and impact, and only some of these can we affect. To my great chagrin, editors do not control algorithms that dictate how stories are published, and headline formulations are copied and bastardized as quickly as they are devised. We are not going to be able to trick people into reading, if we ever could.

As a service industry, though, there are a few behavioral changes we can make in the name of relevance. Impact can create its own news agenda, and we could be a whole lot more generous about amplifying each other’s artisanal stories so they don’t drift away without finding their mark. We can force change by piling on where our rivals have proved wrongdoing, instead of knocking it down in case it beats us to an award. (We could also stop publishing all our best stories at the same time of year to increase our chances.)

And we’re going to have to stop politely ignoring the false news and then inviting its purveyors onto news programs “to provide balance.” Two extremists shouting at each other in the name of news is what got us into this mess. Because how we fund the news is a question for all time, with a billion answers. Where the news gets published isn’t really in our hands. But what it is? What we amplify? What we report? That’s on us.

ICYMI: Here’s what non-fake news looks like

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Janine Gibson has been the editor in chief of BuzzFeed UK since 2015. Previously, she worked at The Guardian for 17 years, launching the paper’s US edition in 2013 and overseeing its Pulitzer Prize–winning reporting of the Edward Snowden leaks on NSA surveillance.