Changing nature of journalism risks credibility and ability to inform

September 11, 2019 — by Marisa Kingsley and Jessica Wang

On Facebook, a short investigative video report with bolded text elicits thousands of users sad or angry “reacting” to the post. The same video is reposted on Instagram and Twitter, sparking more outrage across platforms.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 shows that social media and news websites are overtaking other mediums like traditional newspapers in terms of readership. According to the survey, the number of Americans who depend on social media rose from 18 percent to 20 percent. 

The accessibility of the Internet allows for smaller publications, such as BuzzFeed, to gain a larger platform on social media sites by condensing news into easily digestible and shareable formats. Many of these social media posts garner tens of thousands of retweets and likes, spreading like wildfire across various networks. 

History teacher Kirk Abe often tells his AP Government and Economics students to read about current events. He said the shift from physical to online news has made information much more accessible, giving journalists an easier foothold to grow a platform.

“The internet is going to democratize information and I think it has, but there are pitfalls to that,” Abe said. 

While the shift has its benefits, Abe is one of many who worry that it will also have enduring negative effects. 

In an article in The New York Times, media columnist Jim Rutenburg said the rise in online-only news organizations such as BuzzFeed and Mashable means outlets compete for attention, sometimes compromising credibility to attract viewers with distressing or exaggerated headlines and statistics.

Rutenburg also noted that analytics in newsrooms like The Times and The Washington Post show that audiences respond more to condensed mediums for their news, such as videos, podcasts, or short stories they can read on their phone. These stories are typically geared at the sensational side — anything with Donald Trump, for instance — and are pushed to the top of newsfeeds, while other, “drier” stories — such as court rulings or international news — go relatively unnoticed. 

“The goal: draw big, addicted audiences,” Rutenburg wrote. 

Due to the limits of audience attention spans, longer stories may be less appealing, which leads reporters to oversimplify news or not follow-up on developing stories.

This system benefits smaller publications as well, especially those who rely on views and clicks on their webpage for revenue through ads.

For example, the recent Amazon fires burning in Brazil have dominated news sites and social media outlets. Big news outlets, including CNN and ABC News, perpetuated the false belief that the “Earth’s lungs are burning,” citing that the Amazon produces 20 percent of the world's oxygen, resulting in the popular hashtag #PrayforAmazonia.

Despite the inaccuracy of this statement, dozens of articles continued to be published to capitalize off of viewership.

On most online news sites, stories are based on reader demographics such as political biases and areas of interest rather than factual relevance, which can result in insufficient coverage for matters of national or international importance.

Hence, senior Alexander Pan prefers to read from multiple sources on the political spectrum to compare narratives. 

“I like to read CNN and Fox News just to see what they are trying to sell, see how they’re portraying the world,” he said.

He added that most mediums of news are “evidently pushing a story” by choosing stories for front pages that reflect priorities of the publisher. Partisan coverage by large newsgroups like Fox and CNN is also an issue, for people can be swayed with subjective information that may not sufficiently reflect conflicting viewpoints. 

According to Pan, international coverage tends to be more similar among U.S. publications; to illustrate, most prominent publications are in agreement against perceived enemies of the United States. For example, both Fox and CNN portray the Hong Kong protests in a positive light, painting them as freedom-fighters against communism who reflect aspects of American idealism. 

The plethora of sources today also has the drawback of increased attention to fake news and propaganda.

In an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Matthew T. Hall, the tribune’s editorial director, defined fake news as “false or inaccurate information spread by accident or designed to misinform and disinform,” with poor journalism coverage “designed for clickbait and sensationalism.” 

The digitization of news has led to the creation of an algorithm to determine the prominence of certain topics; through the implementation of artificial intelligence, “front page” stories are ranked by how many clicks the story gets rather than by publisher discretion.

As such, younger demographics who rely primarily on this medium may be misinformed or uninformed about worldly issues.

Pan thinks the lack of knowledge simply comes from not wishing to look at the news.

“Almost all American media outlets paint a bleak future; they all highlight problems, and it is very easy to get discouraged from the negative press,” he said. “Looking at all the horrors of the world is really depressing, and people like to avoid that, so our generation is avoiding it and is thus in the dark.”

Nevertheless, it is important for the younger demographic to be aware and informed of current events, since one day they will have to make decisions that impact the future, Abe said.

“If we are in the dark about these topics it is easy for us to be manipulated later,” Pan said. “The problems of the world are very depressing, however it is up to us to fix them.”

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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