Poor Media Literacy Spawns Fake News Crisis

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Two and half years ago I wrote about failing literacy in America, caused in part by evolving digital media types. The average citizen is losing the ability to understand the written word, and cannot discern quality information online based on text. Never did I imagine that a crisis would come to a fore as quickly as it has with this year’s fake news crisis.

In 2014 I wrote, “Part of literacy… is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud environment.”

Since then we have witnessed the election of Donald Trump, Pizzagate, and the general rise of digital fake news. Today, any persona has the ability to dismiss any other group or media outlet as biased.

As a result, less trust exists for the media. Even triangulating the facts behind a story does not guarantee the data offered is actual truth. In fact, it takes a chorus of diverse voices to make even the unwilling yield to truth. Still, liars and those who want to refute such stories — propagandists like Donald Trump, for example — can call it a “conspiracy.”

The ability to widely disseminate bad information and have it shared with trusting peers creates what is now being called a post-truth reality. There is no fact that can withstand the battering of the adamantly wrong and intentionally incorrect. That is scary, my friends.

Most Adults Cannot Discern Quality Information

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The average American is not prepared to learn or understand information online. A recent Pew study showed that sixty percent of American adults don’t know whether the information they are consuming online is trustworthy.

There is no obvious answer for our digital literacy crisis. People are not questioning what they read online. Worse, they are unable to prepare their own children and grandchildren to discern quality information online, either.

This leaves the imparting of media literacy skills to our schools. As someone currently working in the edtech space, I can tell you that America’s schools are just coming to understand how to best implement online learning. Some schools are very good at it, others don’t even have basic computing devices for their children.

In addition to understanding how to consume information online, parents and educators must learn and teach how to research the information they are receiving. Questioning information must become second nature. We need to ask questions like:

  • Is this information from a credible source?
  • What data is providing the basis for this story?
  • Is the research reliable and based on statistically relevant data (whether it’s a video of an event or a study of thousands of people)?
  • Are there similar stories and data that support the source?

These are basic questions that the average American doesn’t ask online. Instead, we simply trust the source who shared that information. Whether it is a peer sending a story via email or a social network algorithm, the online trust economy created by digital media channels has demonstrated its truest weakness.

Slanted News

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As social media has risen and traditional media have lost market share, news outlets have moved to tabloidesque journalism from formerly trustworthy brands. We have also seen media fracture to cater to smaller demographics, which in turn has created polarized community groups. Most media outlets serve their smaller constituencies with sensational stories drummed up to captivate the human mind. Click bait rules the day.

A younger, smaller media corps with less seasoned editors behind them now write sensational headlines with shaky content. These stories lack the factual quality that even a second tier news outlet would have demanded two decades ago.

Unfortunately, people fall prey to the sensational. The human mind processes it as entertainment and humor, and then latches onto it as fact. The human mind is naturally attracted to the sensational, and when they share this “news” they receive endorphin affirmation from likes and comments.

Then there are those who seek to sway minds with fake news, propaganda disguised as tabloid news. These stories have been deployed through the interwebs, and in actuality through the centuries, with great damage to society.

Today, sensational and fake news stories spread like wildfire thanks to the Internet. Facebook has moved from its original intent to connect people to a viral mechanism to misinform them.

A cycle has been created with likes falling along party lines. With bad information comes unwieldy results. And here we are, a world where the very truth itself can be debated and hucksters can use propaganda and smeer tactics to convince the public they are right.

My News Experiment

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In the wake of the Trump election, I found myself needing to read more my then narrow group of political news media, primarily CNN, the New York Times, and Politico. I started reading more conservative outlets, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, as well as the Washington Post and USA Today. In addition, I tried Breitbart News but found it to be so malicious and ridiculous that I could not stomach it. Don’t get cocky, liberals, I could say the same thing about Jezebel.

My overall assessment surprised me. While groups of media tended to cover similar stories — e.g. “liberal media” outlets the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times and the conservative group of the WSJ, and Fox News — none of them reported stories in the same way. Here is a masthead by masthead review:

CNN: Sensational and over the top. Pure tabloid, almost none of it seems well grounded.

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Fox News: Sometimes grounded, but extremely slanted towards the conservative. Runs a fair amount of link-bait chum that leans towards the malicious. When Fox owns a story favoring moderates or liberals, you know it’s true. They tend to be slow to publish stories that show Trump in a negative light.

New York Times: Very grounded, but written with a liberal slant. There’s great journalism here, but like Fox, when a story favors the conservative, it tends to be when the facts are in their favor, AND the story is big.

POLITICO: Pretty balanced in its news coverage with the exception of representing the political establishment (as a trade rag would be). So Trump coverage has been, but is increasingly less so, shocked and sensational. The zeitgeist has been accepted.

USA Today: The rare moderate masthead, USA Today plays it in the middle, and reports when facts are available. A fair barometer for breaking news.

Wall Street Journal: Similar to the New York Times, this paper is very grounded with great journalism, albeit a conservative slant. The conservatism on display here is that of big business, and as such it remains committed to facts, and will print a story favoring liberalism or anti-Trump if it is proven true or if it is pro-business. All political stories seem to be on delay here, a clear sign of careful vetting.

Washington Post: Grounded, but not as much as the New York Times. It still has a penchant for running the sensational, and can’t resist a good Kelly-Anne Conway quote (yuck). I take their anti-Trump slant as a partisan view.

As a result of broadening my spectrum, I do not trust CNN anymore. It’s pure junk. I also am not likely to trust Fox News and sadly, I don’t trust the Washington Post as much as I used to. In addition, if both the New York Times AND the Wall Street Journal agree on a story then it is almost certainly true.

Low Quality Information Creates a Wild and Ignorant Society

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The biggest take away from my informal experiment was the lack of integrity several of these outlets have when it comes to delivering “news” to their stakeholders. In the case of the more tabloid-esque outlets, it’s clear clicks and eyeballs matter more than the quality of journalism. They are purveyors of the sensational.

Perhaps more disconcerting, these outlets are some of the most consumed news producers in the United States. The study does not include the less reputable outlets that spawned the fake news crisis debated so vigorously over the past two months.

We have seen the results, and they are wild. Though people read and watch news online, because of their information sources, they remain ignorant. And worse, they are adamant about being informed.

To date we’ve seen Facebook offer algorithmic promises at resolving the issue. But given the intrinsic desire of the human mind to fancy the sensational, will it be enough? I don’t think so.

In the end, we must look at the root cause. And to overcome, we must come to know ourselves. We must educate ourselves to discern online information and then demand quality. Digital literacy is the answer, in my opinion, not algorithms to protect people from their own inability to understand information.

What do you think?

Jodi Gersh on Social Media-Driven Journalism

Jodi Gersh is the Director of Social and Strategic Brand Marketing at USA TODAY. She has been with Gannett since 2000, and has helped guide the company through the social media revolution. She will be speaking on a panel with the Washington Business Journal’s Jennifer Nycz-Conner at xPotomac on how the digital media revolution’s continuing impact on journalism.

The following is an interview conducted with Jodi on behalf of xPotomac as a sneak preview of her session. You can see her speak at xPotomac on August 27th in Georgetown (register today using the code “Geoff” and get 20% off). Any typos or errors are mine, not hers.

GL: What’s the biggest thing you have seen changed in journalism as a result of social media?

JG: The two-way dialogue and as journalists we are no longer deciding what you need to know. People are telling us what they want to know. It’s a different dynamic. Journalists always trusted their gut, and [decided] this is what you need to know; this is what we are going to report; this is what’s important.

In social media, you get interactions and pings from the crowd saying, “Hey this is what’s important.” If you are doing it right, you start to recognize this is something we maybe wouldn’t cover or an angle we wouldn’t take, but it is resonating with the people so let’s do that.

GL: You have a unique perspective because of your position within Gannett, and USA TODAY and its local newspapers. How do you differentiate between the stories on social?

JG: There is a difference.

Local journalists live in those cities. So they can be tweeting with someone and then run into them at the supermarket. It’s harder for USA TODAY to have that kind of relationship because the community is everywhere, BUT they can be a very engaging brand online. They have engaging personalities and they have very social content.

On a local level, the brands can also be engaging, but the journalists have more of a connection, an emphasis on being recognized, being knowledgeable, being experts in their community, and living in the same place that they are reporting on. It’s very different. The way both local and national approach social is very different.

Of course, social content is social content. Choosing what to share and how to share it, that’s going to be the same nationally and locally. You want to make sure the way you share things on social media is going to engage the audience that’s in that social zone.

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GL: How has data changed the formula?

JG: There are different types of data, and we actually have many, many types of dashboards. We are looking at a way to pull it into one dashboard. We have social data, we have website data, and we have audience data for our communities of people.

Last year, actually, we rolled out a whole training program for all of our journalists where they were shown how to look at and use their dashboards. So rather than just making the data available, we walked them through what it means and how to take action on it. If you see something happening in Chartbeat or Omniture, how can you do something to see if it will make it better? We have put a big emphasis on using data that way. Actionable.

There’s the marketing funnel and the data coming in from our CRM, our audience, our subscriber databases and our email sign-ups. There’s a lot of data there, and we have a whole other team looking at that. I am not as involved with that right now. Although for paid social, it is all relevant.

GL: What was it like on the broadcast side before the split [Tegna is the new company representing Gannett’s former broadcast properties]?

JG: I worked with social champions across all of the TV sites. There were different ways they looked at social for TV than the ways we looked at it on the publishing side. When you watch your local newscast, you’ll see a few local stories, then you will see stories from other local markets, affiliates within the network. You are accustomed to that.

They would approach social the same way. They weren’t just sharing their local stories, they were sharing stories from across the network if they were super social. Things like a cat stuck in a tree, saved by a fireman.

There was always a back and forth about whether that made sense for our print or publishing sites to do. For the longest time, I felt that didn’t make sense, that this kind of news was a commodity, and that everyone is sharing that viral story about the cat in the tree.

I believed local publishing sites shouldn’t do this, and especially after our Facebook reps told us if every news site shared the same story they won’t show it to as many people. They don’t feel like that is a good user experience. It’s not curated.

Now we’re trying to decide if there can be a mix of that. Can you go for the slightly easier social win even if it is not a local, local story, if you are also providing good local content? Can you create related content for social media that ties into a local market? The answer is probably yes. Those stories are popular, even if they aren’t from your local market.

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GL: You’ve seen the rich media trend, but you work with all types of media. Which media forms are winning out, or is the rich media trend hyperbole?

JG: It’s hard to answer that. When you say which kinds of media are winning, I think that people’s media diet includes all kinds of media. Obviously, print [like newspapers] is slowly dying. Will it ever go away? Circulation is going down every year, and every year they say print is going away, they say five years, but it’s been like that for 20 years. I think there will always be print.

It’s not always by age. There are some hipsters who like their Sunday newspaper, and it’s totally fine. Yes, it’s an older demographic that usually subscribes to newspapers, but that doesn’t mean younger demographics don’t like newspapers.

We’ve done a lot of focus groups with the millennial age group and younger Gen Xers. The way they share information is so different. They are not necessarily loyal to a brand but getting that information from their friends has gone to a whole new level. We were speaking with some younger millennials, and they get their news from their friends via text message. They will take a screenshot of a story on a website and send it to their friends.

So you can see the media type could be anything or anywhere. People get news today on Instagram. How is that? The media diet is really varied, podcasts are in there, apps, photo storytelling.

GL: We’ve seen social become a validator, the success of a story becoming measured by how well it is shared. We’ve also seen the value of conversation. We’ve seen hard data. Have we seen the end game for social or are we going to see something else come along and blow this thing up again?

JG: I don’t think so, we haven’t hit the end of it. I was just talking to someone about how only a few years ago, we started having social media managers in the newsroom. We said, well this is kind of a temporary thing because in five years we won’t need social media managers anymore because everyone will be social.

It’s the opposite now because social has become so fragmented across so many different areas. It’s more important to have a group or people in organizations who understand where and how it’s being used. We’ve got our circulation department using it, our ad sales people selling it, we’ve got editorial using it, we’ve got brand people promoting it; it’s all over the place now.

We’re not at the end point. It is so much a part of the fabric of everything, yet we’re still not where everybody truly understands it. Five years ago you had executives who said ‘why are we wasting time on social.’ But now that’s all they ask for, but they still don’t totally get it. Until everyone gets it – which might not ever happen – we’ll still need expertise.

Beating the Algorithm

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Image by MUMA Monash

In the old days of “influencer relations” (you know way back when in 2009), PR professionals targeted the magic middle and top tier bloggers, which triggered larger blog coverage, and then more often than not traditional news media.

Since then digital media companies straddled the space occupied by both traditional journals and the top tier of bloggers. They use algorithms to detect hot news stories before they trend in the blogosphere, then break the news before traditional players and bloggers alike.

Specifically, Mashable, the Huffington Post, Forbes, Google and the others use algorithms listen to chatter on the social web. When hot trends bubble up they source the content provider, assign a reporter, or in the worst cases use narrative science — computer-based news writing — to break the story first.

This effectively takes power away from PR executives to affect the news cycle through traditional influencer outreach, and in turn, empowers the crowd to determine stories.

Some news outlets use the crowd to validate top stories, too. Validation is embodied by shares on social networks and comments.

For example, USA Today features stories on its web properties based on the posts that get shared the most. The old assignment editor loses weight in these scenarios.
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The Advertising vs. PR Debate Won’t Exist in 30 Years

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USOC Chair and Olympic Gold Medal Winners Scott Blackmun, Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Heather O’Reilly are interviewed by Christine Brennan.

Last Thursday night, USA Today celebrated its 30th birthday in grand fashion at the National Portrait Gallery. Media and Washington luminaries gathered to witness the introduction of the new multimedia USA Today, and discuss the future of media 30 years from now.

Olympians, politicians and even a budding rock star took the stage and weighed in from each of their profession’s perspective. Many focused on how technology was blurring the lines between in home and mobile, between small and large screen, and print and multimedia.

The conversation continued in a special section called USA Tomorrow with luminaries like Twitter and Square Founder Jack Dorsey discussing convergence of media and technology.

That was the big take-away for me, how convergence will force more fluid communication between people through media, even in politics. As this great discussion continued, I could not help but think about our side of the business, the dark side. Marketing.
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What Could Your Cause Do with a Full Page USA Today Ad?

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Ironically, USA Today never asks that question in its #America Wants Twitterathon to give away a free full page ad valued at approximately $190,000. Perhaps worse, USA Today never asked itself how the newspaper can use a full age ad to help a charity that authentically reflects the newspaper’s mission.

Instead we get another contest with no authenticity or theory of change. So what’s the impact? While it seems to be generating some tweets from charities, the overall impact will be debatable.

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From a marketing standpoint, the contest — based on responses to date — has generated a lackluster amount of response. So whether it’s the USA Today or its Kindness Community, in general I’d say this could be better.

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Now, from a change impact standpoint, we have a scattershot approach to the ad. No theory of change means whoever gets the ad will either be a great creator of ads or a bust, but USA Today doesn’t seem to care with this effort. Nor do they care what type of cause (health, environment, etc.) will win the effort. They’ve taken the Pepsi Refresh approach of trusting the crowd.

I’m not quite sure how that successfully changes anything.

Ironically, even the USA Today’s Kindness community has a purpose, “Kindness is your daily source of inspiration and guide to making a difference in fresh and exciting ways, no matter where you are. Each day, this site will unearth unique stories of giving with exclusive interviews, fresh takes on news stories, plenty of tips, and links to interesting resources.”

So let’s riff of that for a different campaign with a theory of change: “Blog your cause’s best story of kindness and tag it “USA Today America Wants” and we will dedicate an entire page in our newspaper to that story, a sidebar on on related tips, and an advertisement from the cause. We will work with you to create a strong call to action so your cause can measure the impact of the advertisement, whether it be donations, awareness or advocacy.

Hmm. Encourage stories of kindness throughout the Internet (achieve mission, reflecting authentic corporate values), create an opportunity for the cause to use the story to affect change (move the needle), generate earned media impressions (market), and add more members to the kindness community (market). Just my two cents on this…

#America Wants expires tomorrow (April 16). While I see cause marketing weaknesses in the effort, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge my cause friends for seeing differently or from participating. It’s still a full page ad ;) In fact, below find a couple of different views…

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