As I was looking at Twitter this morning, I came across this tweet from Penelope Jones, Director of Strategy & Research at Condé Nast Int.
And since this might have been something serious, the journalist in me immediately started to look up more information. What I found was two things.
Firstly, I found that it was just someone who had forgotten a suitcase on a bus, and the police had called in the bomb squad to check. There was no danger at any point. It was just another case of lost and found causing a tremendous level of disruption in our increasingly paranoid world.
(BTW: And if you think a suitcase is scary, wait until you see what math can do.)
Secondly, I noticed that several people and the media were turning this into a frenzy. Let me illustrate.
Penelope took this picture, and here you see that people are just casually walking down the street, standing there looking at all the police, and with no panic or excitement.
But then look at this:
And in this article we find Penelope's picture, credited to the wrong person, with the text:
Witnesses said commuters fled the scene in panic. Shocking pictures showed hundreds of commuters stranded as the incident unfolded just after rush hour.
As Penelope told me:
I definitely didn't see anyone running. Not even for buses ;)
Or look at this from The Mirror:
You should look at the video the Mirror decided to post. One person with an agitated voice is walking around frantically while everyone else is calm. The person then asks a police officer what is going on, and he responds, "It's just a package on a bus", which makes her go completely bananas saying, "OHMYGOSH... it's a bomb!".
Not only is this completely irresponsible journalism. It also illustrates the dangers of not checking up on things.
As Dmitry Shishkin, BBC World's Development Editor said:
And he is exactly right. This is appalling. Not only is it appalling, but it's a fraud. The Mirror and The Daily Express are directly lying to people in order to get more clicks. That's fraud.
Here is the thing about this.
This will always happen. We will always have low-end publishers who act more like scammers than real journalists, just as we will always have people who will take things completely out of context and go bananas about it.
The problem is that people are having a harder and harder time distinguishing real news and false news. Everyone in the media industry has seen the problems that we now have with the misinformed. We have all seen how the public is increasingly distrusting everything.
This distrust could be a good thing if it was used constructively, but the problem is that it's used just to fuel the paranoia.
The result is this graph:
What you see here is that people, in general, have lost the ability to distinguish between trustworthy news stories and the fraudulent ones posted for the sake of clickbait.
And this has a big impact on our society.
Take this suitcase on a bus. Why are the police acting in this way? To keep us safe, right? Because terrorism is so scary and a much bigger problem today than ever in the past, right?
Well, yes and no. They are doing it to keep everyone safe and to not take any chances. But terrorism is generally not a problem today (in the west). Here is a graph illustrating the number of people killed in terrorist attacks.
Yes, there have been some big ones in the past 12 years. The one in Madrid in 2004, the one in London in 2005, the one in Norway in 2011 and the one in Paris in 2015. And, of course, the recent one in Brussels.
These attacks are scary and terrible, but generally, there is no reason to be afraid of terrorism anymore, and especially not in the UK. It's hard to argue that the police shouldn't do this to 'be safe', but one has to wonder whether there isn't a better way to deal with this.
We see the same thing in all the other countries.
In Germany, for instance, there has been a big increase in people going out and buying self-defense weapons, starting neighborhood watch organizations, and going to self-defense training... all because they are afraid of all those refugees coming to the country. And a big part of the reason for this is because of all the stories they have seen in the press.
But, at the same time, several studies have found that refugees don't commit any more crime than anyone else. And this is true not just for Germany, but most other countries as well.
Here is the data from my country (Denmark).
As you can see, immigrants from non-western countries don't commit more crime than the people with Danish origins. The only problem that we do have is with the 2nd generation immigrants. That is, the people who were born in Denmark by parents from other countries.
Is this because of their parents (who don't commit more crime), or is it because the Danish people are failing to accept them and act racist towards them, thus causing frustration and conflict? Remember, they were born here.
However, this article isn't about terrorism or refugees. My point here is that the media is failing to distinguish itself from the misinformation. Even the newspapers who do report the stories accurately fail to stand out.
This is a big problem. And according to all the studies we see, it's a growing problem. Here, for instance, is the data from Gallup:
Newspapers like The Mirror and The Daily Express are lost causes. They will always just be the gutter press chasing whatever tactics can give them the most clicks. But the rest of us have to start making a choice.
Do we chase the clicks? And before you answer that, think also about the future of click-based advertising. Or do we do something that gives us the distinction to stand out?
Remember, it's not enough just to report the real story. You have to really stand out so that people think of you as the place to go when everyone else is talking shit .
I'm reminded by the RMWB that I wrote about in 'the future of local news'.
This is what that distinction is about. It's about that promise we make to our audiences to never mislead them, even if that means waiting for the story to be checked.
What we need is for newspapers to redefine themselves to be founded on the principles of fact-checking. We don't need newspapers anymore to just regurgitate stories as quickly as possible. We have the internet for that.
What we need is a place to go when we don't want to listen to all the noise.
Imagine if Penelope could have just asked her phone (or the Facebook messenger bot):
Hey Siri, what's going on at Islington Station?
And Siri would respond:
I'm checking with the BBC and the Guardian, but the only thing we know so far is that they found a package on a bus. I will get back to you when we have some reliable information".
And then, half an hour later, Siri would notify her:
"Hey Penelope. We now have official confirmation about what happened at Islington Station. Passengers had noticed an unattended luggage on board a route 271 bus, and the police evacuated the area while they checked it. They didn't find anything. As the police put it, it was 'non-suspicious'.
You see how amazing that would be?
We will always have clickbait and scammy publishers. But there is another way to win the future of news. That future is about being amazing and trustworthy.
I would gladly pay for a newspaper like that.
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