So do we have a journalism problem or a distribution problem?
There’s no question that much of the media missed much of the story of Trump’s rise to power – that’s a journalism problem. But it’s also clear that even all the great journalism about the campaign – and there was a lot of it – didn’t really factor hugely in many voters’ minds. And that’s a distribution problem.
That’s not the same as the “fake news” issue – which is yet another real problem. This really about how, in addition to upending business models, the new digital landscape is also upending the media’s ability to get quality journalism in front of audiences. And that’s at least as a big an issue as fake news.
Not that I have any proposals for solutions; but I thought it might be helpful to try to disaggregate the two issues of journalism and distribution, and point to different groups or approaches that should be tackling them.
To be sure, we all could – and should – do better journalism, and certainly much of the media dropped the ball in this election. And fake news is a real problem. But let’s focus for the moment on our distribution problem, our dependence on external platforms to get real news to readers, and the filter bubbles that they inhabit.
As Josh Benton put it very nicely in a Nieman Lab piece right after the elections:
In a column just before the election, The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg argued that “the cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” I wish that were true, but I think the evidence shows that it’s not. There was an enormous amount of good journalism done on Trump and this entire election cycle, from both old-line giants like the Times and The Washington Post and digital natives like BuzzFeed and The Daily Beast. …
The problem is that not enough people sought it out. And of those who did, not enough of them trusted it to inform their political decisions. And even for many of those, the good journalism was crowded out by the fragmentary glimpses of nonsense.
And tackling this issue isn’t really something that individual journalists – or even large news organizations are really equipped to do well.
There’s an analogy here – a medical one – that I think bears on this. Stay with me.
My brother is a cardiologist – a good one, from what I’m told (although don’t tell him I said that.) But he’s also very interested in public health policy as well. So he spends maybe half his time treating patients, and a fair chunk of the rest of the time thinking about what kinds of health policies would incentivize people to stay healthy, what kind of pricing policies would bring down waiting time at clinics, how to get more efficient systems into play at hospitals, and so on.
That puts him in a minority of doctors. Many are focused only on practicing good medicine and saving lives, and that’s a good thing. I want any doctor I see to devote 100% of his or her brain to my well-being, and not to improving overall life expectancy for the country. If we meet a great doctor that’s been credited for saving hundreds of lives, we don’t ordinarily ask him or her what they’ve done lately for lowering infant mortality or producing an overall healthier populace. We understand that it’s not only not their job, it’s not their expertise. We don’t even ask that of large hospitals.
But – and this is an overstatement, so don’t pick on it too much – that’s not generally how we think about journalists and journalism organizations.
We expect reporters to dig deep, write well, and produce great journalism – ie, save lives – as well as know how to make their content go viral, and then insist that they have an impact on the world – ie, change health outcomes overall. (Or if we don’t expect individual journalists to do it, we certainly expect that of their organization.) That’s asking a lot, and requires a lot of different expertise, not to mention being able to affect a lot of systems they don’t have much control over – Facebook’s ad structure, or Google’s algorithms, to name some.
Buzzfeed’s investigations into fake/misleading news factories, for example, put the blame for the fake/misleading news issues at financial incentives built into Facebook’s platform, not on some ideological issue. As Slate noted:
In a way, however, the story is more interesting if you view it as a simple market response to the incentives Facebook’s news feed creates.
Or, as John Hermann detailed in his great NYT Magazine piece about the new media empires being created within Facebook:
Individually, these pages have meaningful audiences, but cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, whether corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times, or openly ideological web operations like Breitbart or Mic. And unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created. Their pages are accommodated but not actively courted by the company and are not a major part of its public messaging about media.
But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web and has now inherited, for better or for worse, a great deal of America’s political discourse.
That’s a seismic shift in how news gets to people. And it’s not really reasonable to expect that any journalist – or any news organization to change that dynamic by themselves.
Which is another way of saying: We need more people to focus on the public policy issue of news distribution, over and above the people who are already focusing on the art and craft and quality of journalism. And they don’t have to be the same people.
Yes, journalists should know how to make their work go viral. But it’s probably too much to ask them to also master the shifting sands of the media ecosystem. That involves not just understanding technology, product and business models for any individual news organization, but broader public policy incentives and levers that can affect what the public sees and understands.
As Nick Diakopolous and Daniel Trielli note in a piece on Slate about how Google surfaces news, far too much of how people get news is simply not known, whether by journalists or anyone else.
The inclusion of non-news links adds a new layer of complexity to an already unclear algorithmic selection of links. If before we didn’t exactly know what a news organization had to do to increase its share in that space—or how CNN and the New York Times can get such a big chunk—now we also don’t know what are the parameters that might warrant the inclusion of a social media link or a press release into the “in the news” list.
I realize there are, of course, people active in the space, and this isn’t intended to suggest no one is looking into these questions. There have been some interesting ideas and suggestions that have already been put forth. (Update: Adding yet an excellent analysis of how misleading news gets propogated.) And don’t forget the huge step Google took when it prioritized fact checking in search results.
But this election has thrown up the issue even more starkly, and more than ever it requires much more focus – related to, but separate from – the question of how journalism is created in the first place.