The term “fake news” has been pounded so furiously by both media watchers and the public. It’s become a term that’s bereft of meaning.
But it’s worth exploring in more detail, because the reasons for the fakeness are somewhat complex and absolutely intriguing.
First, let’s take look at what journalism has become in the digital age.
Remember These 3 Terms
I have Sharyl Attkisson and Ryan Holiday to thank for helping me re-orient around the following concepts that give today’s journalism a false reality. (Look up both of these people on Amazon or online, and you’ll find all kinds of great content related to media analysis and the current state of the media.)
These three terms are essentially the same concept, and you’ll see them bandied about when media analysts are talking seriously about the way articles are produced these days:
I like the term “iterative journalism.” Essentially it means that the research and reporting that goes into most reports follows a pattern where the scoop is more important than the facts.
Journalists know they can get away with weak fact-checking and rumor-mongering and then correct things later, if necessary.
They follow an iterative approach to article creation, and they’re never held accountable for their mistakes, because their missteps can always be corrected in footnotes, comment sections or delayed corrections.
We live in an age where publishing is live and there is no cost to adding pixels or ASCII characters to the end of a published piece.
Process journalism is another, less descriptive word for the same thing. Beta journalism relates the concept to the way software is produced. Gmail, for example, has always been a beta product. Google keeps it that way. They’re always changing it, and they originally launched it with all kinds of bugs and defects.
This is the way journalists have now come to view their products. Build first, fix later.
The Problem with Iterative Journalism
When reporting follows this beta/iterative model, it breaks trust. The problem is that journalism can not be iterative, because as soon as it’s read, the public typically regards it as fact.
In our highly competitive media world, where attention is in short supply and all kinds of entertainment and stories are just a click away, the incentives to product solid reporting are dangerously out of control.
Ryan Holiday calls this “pageview journalism” in his classic book on the subject – Trust Me, I’m Lying.
A quote from his book: “Entire businesses are built by exploiting the interaction between entertainment, impulse, and the profit margins of low-quality content.”
As Holiday describes it, the web’s only currency is clicks, so content is created with the incentive to bait people into clicks. . . as opposed to informing them accurately. “Most bloggers don’t have the time or money to abide by the conventional principles of good journalism,” he wrote. “The economics of the internet create a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important (and profitable) than the truth. This is a predictable pattern that can be exploited.”
So the motivation is to publish first then verify later (if at all). That’s the driving force behind the quick scoop and sites like Buzzfeed, TMZ, Vox and Vice. Unfortunately, it’s become even more prevalent on mainstream sites like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other outlets.
Their reporting, in fact, often evolves from the lesser sites their journalists follow. These include sites like Politico, The Hill, The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post.
Michael Arrington of TechCrunch was famous for saying, “Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap.”
Even more disconcerting is that every time a blog has to correct itself, it gets even more posts and page views. Stumbling and fumbling creates more traffic and more revenue for the publisher!
The News Flow: Directional Dysfunction
In days long gone, news was produced in a top-down fashion. “News of record” publications like The New York Times would publish well-researched reporting, and smaller publications and media outlets would follow their lead.
These days, however, news flows from lesser, poorly resourced sites in an upward flow to the larger, more established media. Holiday describes how he exploits this trend in his book.
A story is broken on a flaky site, it’s picked up by a local, “legitimate” publication or news channel, then those sources are quoted and noted as veracity for the story.
So the blogs read by the media elite become vitally important as seedlings for stories.
Think I’m wrong?
89% of journalists use blogs for their research for stories.
50% of journalists Half use Twitter to find and research stories.
As Holiday puts it, “the news is riddled with errors because it is self-referential.”
The Ponzi Motivation
Add to this the problem that most blogs are built to be sold to larger media outlets. Remember, Buzzfeed scooped up a $200 million investment from NBC. That’s more money than Marc Benioff recently spent buying Time Magazine ($190 million)!
This turns blogs into a Ponzi scheme where traffic, brand recognition and personal brand (of individual reporters) becomes the currency. Those aspects become more important than trust, accuracy and solid journalistic fundamentals.
It all leads to a wide variety of add-on schemes that include “pump and dump” financial reporting, false scandals and outright lies.
This is the fundamental foundation of your “fake news.”
Just a little bit of this insight makes you a smarter news consumer and a highly skeptical reader/watcher of the media.