Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. In this edition we are going to have a very serious discussion about good and bad things in society, and, in particular, how that relates to us in the press vs platforms like Facebook.
We will have a talk about the role of news on social channels, and a discussion about why the Facebook study about mental health is also important for us in the press.
Before we start, though, I want to make something very clear. I'm not a Facebook analyst. It's not my job to help Facebook fix their problems. I am a media analyst, which means that I focus on what we need to do as the press, and how things apply to us.
Please remember this as you read this newsletter. I'm not here to talk about Facebook. I'm here to talk about us.
The first story today is about the role of the press and the future of media. Specifically, it's about why news is fundamentally incompatible with the consumption model that we see on social media (like on Facebook), but also a story about how we as the press can regain the value of our news product, the connection to our markets, our revenue potential and more.
The short version is that publishers need to stop optimizing for Facebook. Everything we know tells us that this leads to the wrong outcome. And this is not really about whether Facebook is good or bad. In fact, Facebook is amazing for a lot of things, but it's not good for news.
In my latest Plus article, I talk about this in much more detail and illustrate what we should and should not do - not just on Facebook, but for the whole internet.
So take a look at: Publishers need to get news off Facebook.
Everyone these days is talking about the internal Facebook study that looked at the impact Instagram had on people's mental health. Many newspapers have been reporting "the study shows that Instagram is toxic for young girls" (or similar), which is ... *sigh* ... not really what the study found.
But there is a much bigger issue here. As you probably know, we are facing a world-wide mental health crisis. Every year for the past decade (or more), we are seeing more and more people diagnosed with mental health problems, and the level of self-reported problems is extremely high.
And in the press, we are no strangers to this. The past decade has been brutal to us, and if you look for studies about it, you will find no shortage of articles illustrating just how bad it is.
For instance, over at the Reuters Institute, they did a study among 73 journalists, where they found this:
70% suffer from some levels of psychological distress and responses suggest that 26% have clinically significant anxiety compatible with the diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder which includes symptoms of worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration and fatigue.
Around 11% of respondents report prominent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which include recurrent intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic COVID-19-related event, a desire to avoid recollections of the event, and feelings of guilt, fear, anger, horror and shame.
That's scary ... I mean, these numbers are huge. And we are not just talking about whether people feel slightly bad about something. We are talking about feelings that are related to serious mental health issues.
Basically, what this tells us is that we have burned out. As a news industry, we have somehow managed to dig ourselves into a pit of despair.
This is not good. This should be the number one priority for any media company. It is not acceptable that 70% of the press suffer from mental health issues. That is not good for journalists or the editors, it's not good for the media companies, and it's not good for the public.
But speaking of the public, here we see an even bigger problem. It turns out that it's not journalists who have mental health problems because of the work they do covering the news, our readers also suffer mental health issues from reading about it.
This is something I have spent a considerable amount of time looking into over the past three years. My journey into this started in 2019 where I noticed that the trend around news fatigue and news avoidance was growing, and I decided to do an experiment to better understand it.
I wrote about that whole thing here, but what I found was that the main reason why people become news avoiders is because of how the news affects their mental health.
Of course, I am not the only person who has looked into this. In 2019, author Jodie Jackson wrote the book: "You are what you read". Through her research, she found that"consumption of negative news is linked to feelings of helplessness, pessimism and ultimately, disengagement."
But we also see it in the data.
In the 2019 edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, they looked at the problem of news avoidance. Here they found that an extremely large proportion of the public says that news is too negative, and when we compare this to news avoidance we see that there is a very clear correlation between the two.
This of course is not surprising when you think about it, but it's something most publishers don't talk about when discussing subscriptions and churn.
Publishers today are losing a substantial percentage of their audience to this.
This also reminds me of journalist and filmmaker Anne-Sophie Novel. A few years ago she created the film "The World The Media and Me".
As she says:
Fake news, "infobesity", media mistrust... The press is in a bad shape and people are sick of hearing the daily news. How did we get to this point? Can we reinvent journalism? Should we create a new and different relationship between news producers and consumers? Anne-Sophie Novel, a journalist herself, shares her doubts and experience, and questions the impact of the news on the way we view and understand the world.
From France to Denmark, to the United States and United Kingdom, her introspection and questioning is enriched, enlivened, and challenged by many rich conversations and exchanges. The passion of the people she encounters and the experiments she discovers prove that change is coming. Time has come for the media, together with the public, to define new ways of making the news.
You can read an article about it over at journalism.co.uk.
But here is the thing. Just because news is negative doesn't mean that it will also make people feel bad. To do that we need three other elements.
The first element that makes people feel bad around reading news is when people feel helpless about the topics being covered. If you read a negative story and it seems like there is nothing that can be done about it, it will often lead to depressive thoughts.
The second element is the tone of news. As we all know, the problem we have is that, in order to drive more page views, the press has a very bad culture of presenting stories far worse and far more emotionally burdened than the journalism justifies.
And finally, it's about frequency. If you are only watching news once per day, during a specific moment where you have chosen to get the news, it likely won't make you feel that bad. But, if you are instead interrupted by negative news everywhere you go, on Facebook, as a notification, and all other places, then the volume of that news will impact your mental health.
And Reuters Institute found this too:
When they asked why people became news avoiders, 66% answered that it was because it had a bad effect on their mood, 33% said it was overwhelming them, and 28% said that it was because they felt helpless about the information.
And this is just one of many studies. But we have overwhelming evidence that news causes mental health problems.
And then, of course, we got hit by COVID (remember, all of the above is before COVID), and suddenly the numbers just exploded.
In a study from 2020, PEW found this: "Americans' news fatigue isn't going away - about two-thirds still feel worn out".
Here we can see that 71% of the US public feel they need to take a break from the news. Sure, we have a pandemic to blame, but that's a huge number, as are all the other numbers listed above.
Of course, none of this is unique to the news media. We also see many problems around mental health for other publishers like, for instance, magazine publishers covering things related to your body image. So, fashion and women's magazines have a long history of causing mental health issues in the way they portray things, and to a much lesser degree also fitness and even health magazines.
It's difficult for me to point to any specific study. I have seen several of them over the years, and they are all measuring things in a slightly different way leading to different results. But, overall, most of these studies have found significant mental health impact, with some studies finding that as many as 70% of young women feel bad after reading fashion magazines.
Here, for instance, is a study from Dr. Paulina Swiatkowski that looked at how people felt about the drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, psychological health, and sociocultural attitudes towards appearances. The result was ... bad.
As she writes:
Reading fashion magazines was significantly correlated with body dissatisfaction. Reading health magazines is not significantly correlated with body dissatisfaction. However, level of commitment to both fashion magazines and health magazines are significantly correlated with body dissatisfaction, suggesting that the more committed the participant is to that type of magazine, the higher the body dissatisfaction.
Of course, everyone in the fashion industry knows this.
In fact, let me tell you a story. More than a decade ago I worked in the fashion industry. We had multiple brands, many of them targeting young women, and because of this, our photo team were using underage girls (as young as 14), dressed up in heavy makeup and often revealing clothes, and then also heavily retouched in Photoshop to make them look like very thin 20 year-olds.
I didn't work in the photo team and so I had no say in any of this, but it's not something I'm proud of today. But the reason why nobody questioned this was because it was normal. Every fashion company did this, and every magazine did it too.
In fact, it took until 2012 before the big fashion magazines like Vogue finally committed to ending this practice.
Vogue bans skinny, underage models: The editors of all 19 editions of Vogue around the world have pledged to use only healthy models no younger than 16 on their editorial pages in an attempt to shift the fashion industry's approach to body image.
Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue's flagship US edition, and Emmanuelle Alt of Paris Vogue - which caused an uproar in 2010 with a photo spread featuring a 10-year-old girl - are among those who agreed to the pact.
And then it took another six years, until 2018, before Vogue also banned the use of models under 18 because of the huge problems we have in the modelling industry around sexual harassment.
So we have a long and very well documented history of mental health problems in the magazine industry. Things are getting better, but remember, the study I showed you above is from 2016. That's four years after Vogue and others' initial ban. Clearly this problem and the same problems for news are not solved yet.
So... last week, we heard the story that Instagram had done an internal study about mental health, and it had somehow been leaked. And everyone in the press was shouting about it. We reported that Facebook tried to keep it a secret, it showed that Instagram was toxic for girls, Instagram is the worst thing ever, they need to be held to account, face possible legislation from the US Congress and the EU ... and it just went on and on like this.
Obviously this piqued my interests. Not only because this is a topic I have been looking into for three years, but also because I wanted to see the numbers. From the way they were reported about in the press, they must be monumentally bad!
So, I got my hands on the actual study, I found the data and it looks like this:
As a media analyst, I looked at this and I went: "Hmmm... that's not that bad".
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that it is good, nor am I saying that Instagram shouldn't try to improve things (they should), but think of everything I just told you, and then compare it to this.
On Instagram, 44% of young UK girls say that Instagram doesn't affect their mental health, 25% say that it makes them feel worse, but 30% say that it makes them feel better.
Those numbers are better than any of the studies I just talked about for how we perform in the traditional press.
Or to put this into perspective, if you are suffering from a mental health issue and you only had three choices being either:
The best choice, based on these numbers from all these studies, would be ... to use Instagram.
This is crazy. And, as a media analyst, I hate that I have to point this out. But I have been looking at these things since 2019 and Instagram has better numbers than we do.
On another slide, Instagram had reached out to a small group of people who specifically had said that Instagram made them feel worse, and asked them why. This is what they said:
All of this sounds bad, and it's certainly something Instagram should try to improve. But look at the quote that says:
I've had to stop myself looking at Instagram in the morning because it has so much power to shape how I feel.
I have seen so many tweets on Twitter from media people saying that "this proves Instagram is toxic."
First of all, that's not what it proves because these answers are from a very small group of people, a subsection of those who responded negatively.
But, secondly, well ... I mean ... we could say the exact same thing about us in the press.
Here is an article from Inc, based on a study from 2015.
The set-up for the study was simple. Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, psychologist Michelle Gielan, and HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington teamed up to test the effect of brief exposure to the news on a group of 110 study subjects. Half of these volunteers consumed the usual grim fare found in newspapers for three minutes. The other half watched more uplifting stories of disadvantaged kids struggling to win a school competition or an older man bouncing back from previous failures to finally get his GED.
Absolutely no one was shocked to see the latter group was more cheerful after their experience than the former, but the extent to which just three minutes of negative news exposure could affect a person's day did surprise the researchers. When they questioned participants about their mood a full six hours later, the effects were much more significant and dramatic than we expected
Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.
And this was exactly what I also found when I started to look into the problem around news avoidance. People who choose not to read the news generally report that they feel more happy. They replace their FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), with JOMO (the Joy Of Missing Out).
Last year, before all of this, I even did a talk where I pointed this out.
But wait a minute (you might say) 25% still said that Instagram made them feel worse. Shouldn't they do something to fix that? Yes, of course they should.
But this is where the next problem comes. Because, in the press, we have been reporting as if "Instagram wasn't doing anything", as if this is a problem that could just be solved by having Mark Zuckerberg flip a switch.
But that's not how any of this works. First of all, on Instagram we have two kinds of truly bad content. There are scammers who are posting about anorexia, or promoting extremely unhealthy things, all of which Instagram of course should do everything they can to remove.
However, despite what some seem to think, normal people generally do not follow scammers on Instagram. So when we see that 25% think Instagram makes them feel worse, it's highly unlikely that it's channels like these that are causing it.
The other form of bad content is far more difficult to deal with. This is when bad people do something that people like. For instance, we have many right-wing channels promoting intolerance. And while you and I think this is really bad, to their direct followers it makes them feel better. They like it when these people are intolerant to others.
So even if Instagram could remove all the content that makes people feel bad, it wouldn't remove this.
Then we have something even trickier. Sometimes good content makes people feel worse.
Let me give you an example. Let's talk about a healthy body weight. What is a healthy body weight? Well, the real answer is complicated but, simplified, we can look at BMI, where being 'healthy' means a BMI between 18.5 and 25.
So, imagine then that you have someone who is very overweight, and they start to see pictures of people with a BMI of 20. How do you think that would make them feel?
To answer that, I suggest you head over to the Media Voices Podcast, where they interviewed Gina Tonic from the magazine "The Fat Zine". The Fat Zine is a magazine "by fat people for fat people, and anyone who cares about them".
This is what their Instagram page looks like:
So here we might have a person who says that pictures like these make her feel better, whereas pictures of people with a healthy BMI would make her feel worse about herself.
Just think about this for a second.
The definition of better or worse is incredibly individualized and it means very different things for different people. So what exactly do we want Instagram to remove?
It's easy to just report that "Instagram should fix this" ... but, what exactly does that mean?
Well, if you asked me this question, then I really don't have enough data to make such a determination. But if I were to make a suggestion, I would say that maybe we should look at the algorithm.
Some people say that we should just get rid of the algorithms, but there is really no evidence that proves that doing so would fix these problems.
But here is an idea.
Imagine when you went to Instagram, instead of a like button (or a heart), Instagram would actually ask how each post impacts your mental health.
And then imagine that Instagram would use this to define a 'value' for each post and each channel based on how many people rank them as making them feel better and how many said it made them feel worse ... and then use that for ranking (on an individual level).
Would this work?
I don't know. Again, we need more data. But personally, I think this could be a very interesting thing to do. I think it would get rid of some of the worst content and make it easier for Instagram to identify bad content overall. I also think it would help Instagram be even more brand safe, and it would probably even help Instagram increase their DAUs (Daily Active Users).
But here is the thing, in the example above I use H&M, and they are a great brand with a very good focus on diversity, so most of its posts would probably rank very high.
Now let's look at the news. For instance, let's look at the Wall Street Journal which has spent the past two weeks telling Instagram to stop making people feel bad.
Here is one of their recent posts:
Sure, this might be an important news story, but imagine what would happen if people were asked whether this post made them feel better or worse?
We all know the answer to this. Newspapers like the WSJ would rank incredibly low, and Instagram would have to de-rank them in order to keep people feeling well.
So now we just went full circle and we are right back to where we started, and how news is causing people to have mental health problems.
Personally, I do think Instagram should do this. But, I'm pretty sure that if they tried, the media industry would go bananas and demand to be exempt from these changes so that they could continue to bring news on Instagram the way they have always done.
My point is that the reporting I have seen over the past two weeks has been misleading in terms of helping the public understand how traditional/social media impacts their mental health.
We all want Facebook, Instagram and other tech companies to do better, but this story is much bigger than them, and includes outside factors that make this whole thing many times more complicated. And, as publishers, we have our own problems, and contribute to this in a really big way.
If we, as journalists, truly care about this topic, we need to cover this in an entirely different way.
BTW: Don't forget to read my latest Plus article: Publishers need to get news of Facebook.
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Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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