Emergent Journalism

Reports from the front line of journalism instruction

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Lazy news gathering through social media unhealthy for democracy

I posed a series of questions to one of my classes this week that brought out an interesting pattern of results.

I first asked them to report about their time spent on consumption of general news, instructing them to exclude time spent on things such as sports and entertainment news. The three options were: “spend a lot of time with general news” (defined as 30-plus minutes most days); “spend some time with it” (between 10 and 30 minutes most days); and “spend little or no time with it” (less than 10 minutes a day). They were about evenly split between “some” and “little to none.” Not a single student said they spend “a lot of time” with general news.

In the next class session, I asked them to agree or disagree with each of the following statements: “Living in a democracy is important to me” and “Self-governance (democracy) requires public awareness about the government.” Not surprisingly, every member of the class agreed with both statements.

Then we held a discussion about the discrepancy between their answers to the question about the importance of public awareness, and their own self-disclosed profile as a group that overall pays scant attention to general news. Pointing out the discrepancy seemed to make them uncomfortable, and many who offered an explanation fell back on lack of time as a rationale. (To which my response was: we all have busy lives, yet we all find time for the things that are important to us.)

The discrepancy gave me an idea for an analogy, which I also presented, as follows: This pattern of answers is like the person who says they want to be healthy and fit, yet won’t make the time and effort to eat healthy and exercise. Can people stay healthy if they can’t be bothered to engage in healthy habits? The obvious answer is “no.” Extending this as a teaching point, I asked whether a democracy could be healthy if half of the people within it pay little or no attention to the information they need to effectively govern themselves. *Crickets* as a response.

Engaging in this activity with the students, and especially the exercise analogy I came up with, helped me think about three other pieces of news this week from a different angle. Earlier in the week I had read both Charlie Warzel’s Buzzfeed piece about how easy it has become to manipulate reality (and the implications for that) and Wired magazine’s article about how Facebook got “gamed” in ways that manipulated campaign information during 2016. And just hours after the class discussion came news of the indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller illustrating just how manipulative Russian operatives actually had been during the 2016 campaign.

All of this prompted me to think that an obvious, if maybe unrealistic, solution to the problem of public opinion manipulation that threatens to damage democracy is to stop getting public affairs news from social media platforms and instead actually seek it out from organizations that Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has referred to as “the reality-based press.” By all means keep your Facebook and Instagram accounts to post personal news and photos about vacations, family events, personal accomplishments, etc. But don’t post, or consume, news about politics, disasters, etc.

I realize it is unrealistic to think that this behavioral change will happen in a widespread way. Getting news from social media has become the default approach because it’s easier to let news find us than it is to go seek it.

I suggest it nonetheless because current patterns of news behavior are what made Facebook ill-equipped to stop Russian operatives from using it to flood the zone with campaign propaganda, as Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein describe in Wired. More frightening, it could allow the manufactured reality scenarios like those described by Aviv Ovadya in Warzel’s article to develop, too.

But in “outsourcing” our news-seeking work to our social media feeds, aren’t we much like my students who say they are “too busy” to pay attention to news at all? We just can’t be bothered to subscribe to local newspapers and other high-quality (i.e. “reality-based press”) outlets and get our news from them. It’s so much easier to let the Facebook tide of links flow over us, fake news and filter bubbles be damned.

Wouldn’t society be better off if more people made the effort to ensure that the information they are consuming is valid, verified, reliable and accurate? Getting it from trustworthy news organizations is perhaps the best way to do that, which is what I am suggesting here. (As an aside, I don’t for one second believe that Facebook’s effort to have users rate trustworthiness of news organization shared in feeds will work. It’s just another algorithm to be gamed.)

This isn’t a call to turn the clock back 50 years to Walter Cronkite being the nearly sole arbiter of “that’s the way it is.” But if effective self-governance does rely on the public having a shared set of verified facts about public policy and the activities of our public officials, then surely making the effort to get that information from the reality-based press instead of something shared on Facebook that may have reached a news feed courtesy of a Russian bot becomes a necessary first step.

People who want to stay healthy eat right and exercise. For democracy to stay healthy, we need more – and ideally all –  citizens to engage in news-gathering practices that keep accurate, reliable, verifiable information as the basis of our political decision-making. For as long as we keep taking the lazy way out of turning to Facebook for our news, that’s not going to happen.

Cross posted to my Medium account