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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - October 2016

Surviving in a Post-Truth, Post-Data, Post-Reason World

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One of the biggest threats to journalism, and in some ways our very democracy, is the problem that we now have with the misinformed. I wrote a lengthy article about this earlier this year called "The Increasing Problem With the Misinformed", and during Brexit I also highlighted how badly the UK press added to the misinformation.

On top of this, we see study after study highlighting the increase of false and misleading information, we see how false information is repeatedly trending on Facebook, and we see how inaccurate information is getting substantial more engagement in forms of sharing and likes - further extending its reach.

All of this is causing publishers to struggle. How do you stay relevant in a world where people increasingly turn to false information? How do you stay in business when people no longer trust the news, and can tell the difference between good and bad journalism?

Well, the answer to these questions is obvious:

The only way to win this battle is by focusing on your reputation and dramatically raise the bar for what you consider good journalism. In other words, distinction is the only way to solve this.

This, of course, is much, much easier said than done. But no matter how big of a challenge this is, or how impossible it might seem, there is no other way to win this. You cannot post crappy news stories to keep up your traffic, and then at the same time stand out and have a reputation for something better.

The media industry is now at a point where something new has to happen, and where the choices we make will redefine the way we think about news forever.

So, in this article, we are going to talk about this shift, the challenges we face, and how to create a new future as a trustworthy source of news.

It's not a simple problem

One of the first things we need to realize about this problem is that there is no simple answer or quick fix. We can't just block the 'fake' news, because there is no real way of accurately distinguishing the good from the bad.

We see this very clearly in a marvelous study done by BuzzFeed News. They looked at 9 news sites. Three of them were traditional news sources, with the remaining 6 sites being either left or right hyperpartisan sites.

They then painstakingly fact-checked all 2,282 posts that these sites posted over a period of seven days in September 2016 and ranked them in terms of 'Mostly false', 'Mixed', Mostly true' and 'no factual content'.

And the result was this:

The good news is that you can very clearly see how the traditional news sites are standing out from the hyperpartisan sites, but it's not like the other sites where mostly false.

While the hyperpartisan sites did post a staggering amount of false information, the majority of their posts were actually true. The worst offender, a site called Freedom Daily, posted fake news 23.2% of the time. That's pretty bad, but they posted true news 50% of the time.

This very clearly illustrates the problem that we have today.

When media people complain about Facebook promoting fake news, the question you should really be asking is, how would Facebook know when something is fake or not?

To make such a determination, you would need to first fact-check each article that they post. And since it often takes longer to fact-check an article than what it originally took to write it, the amount of resources we would need to put into fact-checking would be enormous.

And even if we could fact-check a site, maybe via some crowdsourcing+AI tech, you still wouldn't be able to block it. Remember, only 23% of Freedom Daily's content was false, while 50% was true. You can't block that, because that would also mean that Facebook had to block traditional newspapers for occasionally posting false information. Should we also block Fox News and MSNBC? What about Mail Online? Or what about the Guardian or the New York Times?

So, the reality is that we now live in a connected world where anyone can publish anything. And we simply don't have the resources to fact-check even a tiny fraction of what is posted every day. And even if we could, it's really not changing anything.

We just have to accept that this is now the world we live in, and that fighting it is a massive waste of time.

What we need to do instead is to 'win by influence'. As in, we need to prove that some sites are different because of the distinction and reputation that we build up around them. We can't take down the bad sites, but we can make the good sites many times better. And with that, we can change the culture.

This is going to take many years. There is no easy fix here, because we have to revert a decade worth of negativeness.

We basically have to teach people that there are two forms of media in the world today. The media that you can trust, because we prove it to you with everything we do. And then we have the media who are just optimizing for clicks.

But there is an even bigger problem:

Remember the BuzzFeed News graph from before? Remember how big a share of the news from traditional media that was considered 'Mostly True'?

This looks good, but the reality is that journalists, in general, don't really know what a fact is. And many articles that are technically true, are either presented in a misleading way, or reported in such way that people end up being misinformed.

And before we can do anything about our reputation, we need to fix that problem first. So let me give you a few examples:

It's true that I heard it

One of the most common problems that I come across is that journalists have a weird sense of 'not my job' when it comes to reporting the news.

The way this happens is that a journalist will report a story, and tell the reader exactly what people said or what happened in a particular place. But at no point will the journalist consider the value of the overall information. The result is very often a false narrative, in which people have to make up their own facts.

I'm reminded of a wonderful episode of the old British sitcom 'Yes, Minister'. The Minister and his assistant are discussing a rumor, and they don't quite have the same definition of whether it is true:

As readers, we end up as confused as when we started. We hear about a rumor, but at no point is it either confirmed or denied. But it's kind of hinting that it might be true ... without actually ever saying it.

This is a classic form of journalism that we see all the time. Journalists are incredibly good at reporting stories and telling us what people say. But at the same time, they spend almost no time actually thinking about the information that is being provided. Journalists have a no-touch mentality to news, which means that we don't get any smarter.

One example of this is this article from a Danish news site. The story is about how a rich person wants to build 'gated communities'.

The journalist explains that a 'gated community' is a closed area with walls and security that creates a feeling of safety because other people don't have access to it. And he then further reports that the reason why we need this is:

The time is ready for 'gated community' in Denmark, because we live in an increasingly insecure world, he says.

And in the traditional 'he said/she said' manner, the journalist then ends the article by interviewing an 'expert', who said:

I would venture to say that if we get more and more gated communities, we risk actually increasing the insecurity, because it increases fear, intolerance, prejudice and so on.

In other words, this expert didn't have a clue what he was talking about. He is merely stating an opinion based on his gut instinct. There is no analysis, no data, no real insight here.

You see the problem here?

Technically, everything in this article is true, in the sense that everyone did indeed say these things. But at no point were you informed as a reader, nor was reasoning evaluated.

As a result, people end up being misinformed, which means that they end up making their own decisions of what to believe. It's not about true or false anymore. It's about opinions and feelings, in the absence of facts. And this exactly is why people cannot tell the difference between traditional news sites and fake news.

For one thing, do we live in a less secure society? Well, we have no idea because the journalist didn't care to look at it before posting the article.

So, let's take a look (it's very easy to look up).

If we look at the total rate of crime in Denmark, we see that it's down by almost 20% over the past 20 years. There was an uptick of crime following the financial crisis, but since then crime is down by a lot.

But maybe this isn't the best way to look at it, because this data contains a lot of crime that has no relevance to gated communities (or households in general). For instance, you have no shoplifting in your back garden.

So if we look at home burglaries, property damage and theft (cars, bicycles, etc), we see this:

Again, there was an uptick of burglaries following the financial crisis, but that has since been solved. Today, all of them are down by a lot, more than 50% for property damage and theft.

Of course, there is also the threat to your person, and the data for that looks like this:

Here, sadly, we see an increase in crime rates, especially of the very violent kind. But then we have to consider if this is in relation to rich people (those who want gated communities). Is this type of crime happening to rich people near their homes... or is it more something that happens in poorer communities between gangs or near bars where people have had too much to drink?

Well, sadly, the data doesn't tell us anything about that.

The original article didn't provide the reader with any context. It merely reported what a rich person wanted to do, and why he thought it was needed. But the article never looked at the reasoning behind it. It never looked at the data.

But by simply spending 10 minutes looking it up, I could provide you with a much clearer content so that you now feel much more informed. And I didn't just tell you about the data that we had, I also told you about when the data might not answer the question. I highlighted both the knowns and the unknowns.

Of course, I could have continued. We could have expanded this to look at what effect it has on society to separate rich people from the commoners this way. Does it increase inequality? How about the society of the city as a whole? Does it create a kind of a black hole in a city? Does it polarize crime?

There are so many other things that we need to tell the reader about. And no, interviewing an expert who clearly has no idea what he is talking about, nor has done any analysis before the interview is not how you solve this.

We need data. We need it reported as data. And we need to make sure people understand what the data means, and what it doesn't mean.

Anyone can publish any article, but it's data that makes your articles stand out. And it's this distinction that you need to put into every single article to make your articles feel different than all those other articles that people find on Facebook.

Lying to your readers

It's one thing to make sure that every single article is well made and isn't just leaving it up to the reader to guess what the data says. A bigger problem is when journalists are deceiving their readers.

If you want to stand out from all the fake news sites, lying to your readers is the single most damaging thing that you can do. And it's the single biggest factor that is destroying your reputation as a news site.

The problem, however, is that journalists often don't technically lie to people, which is why they think they can get away with it. But it's still a lie.

There are many examples of this, in fact, I see several of them every single day across pretty much every newspaper. But let us just look at one example.

In one of the largest Danish newspapers, we could recently find this article:

The article then starts with this explanation by the journalist:

It may be tempting to lift up a kitten, cuddle with it and put it down again. But be careful with it. Because if the kitten bites you, you can get cat scratch disease. And that can ultimately kill you.

That sounds pretty scary.

But then as you read the article and you get to the very end, you find this quote from a researcher from 'Statens Serum Institute' (which is the Danish version of the 'CDC- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention').

Cat Scratch sickness can be fatal, yes. But do not apply to ordinary healthy people who go to the doctor when they get sick. It applies to people with compromised immune systems. It could for example be people who are infected with HIV or are drug addicts.

Although the new study shows that cat scratch disease occur a bit more frequently than previously believed, it's, as Steen Ethelberg points out, still rare. Thus, the researchers found that the disease each year are at 4.5 per 100,000 people.

In other words. While you could claim that, technically, the journalist told the truth, the narrative is an absolute lie. This is dishonest journalism in the extreme.

But it's actually even worse than that, because think about how people react to this?

First of all, think about what is actually happening in this article. First, the journalist tells you something that simply isn't true in any reasonable sense. And then the article ends with a quote from a researcher telling us that this isn't a thing.

As such, the journalist ends up being perceived as the dishonest one, with the person interviewed being more truthful.

Think about how damaging this is to your journalistic reputation, and your ability to stand out. This newspaper is telling its readers that they can't trust the journalists, but that they can trust the people they interview. So what do you think happens when they interview someone else? Who would people trust? The journalist?

Secondly, this type of reporting polarizes the audience into three groups of readers, each one being terrible:

The misinformed

The first group are the ones who merely see the headline as they browse through their Facebook newsfeed (or the front page of the newspapers). These people didn't take the time to actually read the article, but they did see the headline.

What happens to this group? Well, they become misinformed, and, as such, start to make conclusions that aren't warranted by facts. This doesn't seem like that big of a problem, but then think when this happens in relation to stories about refugees, crime, or political candidates.

We don't want this to happen. Ever!

What's terrible about this group is also that many might actually decide to share this article based merely on the headline, which is even worse. Because now you have enabled people to share a story that is basically a lie to all their friends, who don't like being lied to. So they ask their friends, "why did you share this with me? It's a lie!"

So, they get embarrassed because they hadn't actually read it before sharing it, but they trusted you as a newspaper. A trust that you just violated in the worst way possible.

The result? They will never trust you again, and they will definitely never subscribe.

The 'confirmed bias' group

The second group of readers are those who already don't like cats (maybe they are dog lovers). And they love this article because it talks badly about cats. To this group, it doesn't matter that it's a lie. Because they only care about having their own opinions confirmed.

Again, this seems harmless for an article such as this, but then think about how often this happens with political news stories. The newspaper is enabling people to polarize their opinions in the absence of real facts.

The result? You now have an openly biased reader-base, who don't care about what you actually write ... which is basically the worst type of reader that you can have. And they will never subscribe either.

The informed, but angry

The third group are the highly valuable type of readers who actually care about the content of the article itself. This is the group who takes the time to read the article all the way to the end, and is thinking about what it says.

But you just lied to them as a journalist.

The result of this is what we see quite frequently when we look at how people comment on these types of articles. If we look at the Facebook post, for instance, we see many example of readers being angry at the crappy journalism.

One reader writes: "Crappy click bait journalism". Another writes: "What is happening here? This article is shit." Another writes: "OMG. Please stop". Other people are calling it "Bullshit", and some are suggesting how the journalist could actually produce something of value instead.

The common element here is that this group all read this article because they were interested in the topic, but ended up being hugely disappointed by the journalism in it.

So, how did this newspaper respond? Did they apologize for letting people down and promise to do better in the future? Nope.

Here is one reply to people calling it out as click-bait:

Dear readers. This article is more a kind of entertainment and fascination than it is a news story. We do not claim that this is in-depth journalism like our other stories. But there must also be room for stories like this one. Take it as it is, and we then will find the journalism that you like to read on our site.

First of all, this is another lie. This article was posted in the section called 'family and health', and it has the exact formatting and presentation as all the other news stories. So, when they say that this isn't really news, they are saying that the reader can't trust any of the articles because you can never know whether something is real or not.

Secondly, even if it was 'just' entertainment, it still doesn't justify telling people something that isn't true in any reasonable terms.

Thirdly, why would people want to go to the newspaper to find other articles, if this is how they started engaging with them? This is pretty much the worst way to sell the value of your journalism.

But it get's worse, because they then continue by saying:

We can not write the whole story in this section, where we have only very few words to work with. It's simply about a study that shows that cat scratch disease is more common than previously believed. The article covers this news overall. [...]

Again, what the heck is this?

Firstly, they argue that the reason this article is crap is because they didn't put in the effort to write it. They only had a few words to work with? Seriously?

Yes, yes... I know. It's because they have a print focus. But they are competing with the digital world here. Can you imagine BuzzFeed or Huffington Post saying that they didn't have room in an article? Or... a YouTuber saying that they didn't have enough seconds for a video?

This is the worst selling point I have ever heard.

This excuse is then repeated by the newspaper. As they wrote to another reader:

We do not agree that it is clickbait. The article tells exactly what the topic and the article is about. We have limited space, and we can not write the whole story. Vh. JP

Again, what kind of argument is this? And again, the article doesn't exactly inform people about the topic. As one reader then replies:

No. Because then you should have written that cat scratch disease may kill drug addicts. Which would not have gotten nearly as many readers. It sounds ridiculous.

And she is right. The way the newspaper is arguing makes no sense. But remember the three types of audiences we are reaching here.

This is not a good way to run a newspaper. They are aiming for the first two groups with their journalistic focus, but that's not where the money is. And they are ruining their reputation for the only group that cares.

This is why newspapers fail.

But, wait-a-minute, they say. We are publishing many other stories that are really good.

Well, that may be true (this particular newspaper is actually a good newspaper), but this is not how the world works. You can't do one bad thing and then just think that doing a good thing makes up for that.

Think about Samsung. It's a great company that is making a ton of really great products. And then came the Samsung Note 7 ...which burst into flame, which they then tried to cover up, failed, after which they tried to replace it without having first identified the problem, causing the replacements to burst into flame as well.

The result is that Samsung is having a reputation crisis that will take them many years to correct. One bad phone and one bad experience destroyed so much of their reputation.

Or look at VW, who is a great car maker. But then they had one type of engine which was sold on a fake promise and falsified test results. And the result was the same as with Samsung. They now have to endure a massive reputation decline, which will take them years to get back.

This is what is happening to news as well. We are in the middle of a massive reputation crisis. And it doesn't matter that 90% of your stories are good if 10% are crap. If you try to deceive your readers, you are doing exactly the same as VW.

It's absolutely killing your ability to make a difference and to stand out. And, as such, this is why people now think about news from hyper-partisan sites the same way as they think about news from traditional newspapers.

This has to stop. I don't care if it brings in more traffic. I don't care if this is what gives you more engagement on Facebook. Look at the long term trends, and tell me whether you think this is working.

Only being competent for the people who don't care

Another problem that often comes across is the problem that journalists often don't really know what they are writing about. Mind you, journalists are very good at putting stories together. You have excellent writing skills. You are very good at digging up sources and interviewing people, and you are brilliant at giving people a quick view of something.

Doing all this was great back in the 1980s when the main purpose of a newspaper was to be a daily package of news, where people would just get 'a little bit of everything'.

The problem today is that the internet itself (and Facebook in particular) is now our 'little bit of everything' channel. Which means that when people really decide to read a story, they expect more from it.

But journalists don't really do this very well. Consider this:

Here we see an example of The Verge sending a journalist to cover the launch of a new drone. But as the journalist writes in the article, "I've never flown a drone before, so of course I crashed it".

You see the problem here?

In a world where we have thousands of stories about drones, why would people read an article by a journalist who doesn't know anything about them?

Where is the value in this?

But this is how journalists have always worked. At journalism schools, you are taught to just focus on the act of journalism, and most journalists define their value by how many different topics they have covered in their career.

As I mentioned in another article, this was the output of one typical journalist over one week:

Why would I want to read this? Why would I want to read an article about exercise by a journalist who clearly doesn't really care about it? This is why journalists fail and why YouTubers can get a million views on their videos.

The result is that all your articles are only relevant to people with very low intent. The Verge article about a drone is only relevant to those who are just casually browsing their News Feed looking for 'whatever'. But for those who really care, your valuable audience, the article is seen as shallow and pointless (as illustrated by the above tweet).

And this is true for all types of stories. If you are a journalist and you write an article about the problems in the shipping industry, because you don't really know anything about the topic, the article will only be interesting for those who don't work in the shipping industry.

You are only creating value for the people who are unlikely to give you anything in return. You aim for the wrong type of engagement with the wrong type of stories.

When a fact isn't a fact

Finally, another reason why people can't tell the difference between a fake news site and real one is that journalists have a weird relationship to facts. Most of the stories that we see today have almost no actual facts in them, but are instead filled with speculations and conjectures.

One example of this is what happened during Brexit.

Katharine Viner, the Editor-in-Chief at The Guardian, wrote a great article about the post-fact world, but she kind of missed an essential problem about facts. She wrote:

It was hardly the first time that politicians had failed to deliver what they promised, but it might have been the first time they admitted on the morning after victory that the promises had been false all along. This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.

The remain side's worrying facts and worried experts were dismissed as 'Project Fear' - and quickly neutralised by opposing "facts".

What she is saying here is that the 'leave' side posted false information (which they did), while the 'remain' side posted facts.

But this is not what happened at all.

Instead, what actually happened was that people had a choice between two different types of opinions.

One the leave side, we had a very strong set of negative opinions about Europe, supported in a massive way by most of the British press, as I illustrated in this article. And these very strong opinions were then backed up by a mix of true and false stories, with several stories and narratives being intentionally misleading.

Many of these were promoted by the politicians (like the infamous campaign bus promising £350 million per week to healthcare), but many other false stories were created and promoted by the press.

On the remain side, we had a much smaller group of newspapers, like the Guardian, who were focusing most of their coverage on interviewing experts and economists about the potential consequences of the UK leaving the EU.

As it happens, these expert predictions now appear to be right, but at the time, the public had no way of knowing that. Something isn't a fact, just because an economist expert says that, based on his analysis, he is predicting that 'this will happen'.

He me be right in his prediction, but it's still just a prediction. That's not a fact.

So, the reality was that people had a choice between one side that was presenting one form of opinions, supported by something that sounded like facts (but often wasn't), compared to another side presenting a different set of opinions, supported by something that they predicted might be true.

That's not a very good basis for making an informed decision, nor is it a good example of fact-based reporting. And, as it happened, 51% chose the former option.

Katharine Viner is right that this was a problem, but the real cause of the problem was that there were very few real facts being reported.

So what is a real fact?

It's simple. It's actual data. It's not an interview with an expert, or asking people what they think. Real facts is real data, based on real measurements.

We see this misunderstanding about what facts are all the time when newspapers cover the refugee crisis. Almost all the articles are about interviewing people or experts, who will then tell you what they think or what they have found, which is then mixed by hundreds of other stories where you are writing about people's opinions, or isolated cases that don't represent the full picture. And only a few stories focus on the actual data, the actual facts.

If we want to stand out and build up a reputation for fact-based reporting, we need to bring in the data to every single article. Not an expert talking about the data, but the actual data itself.

But it's not just about bringing out the actual data, it's also about explaining what this data means, what it is really measuring, how that fits into the bigger picture ... and most importantly, what we are missing from it.

We need to make sure that people both know what we know, but also what we don't know. We need to show people the perspective of things. We need our journalism to explain how things are connected.

This is how you stand apart from all the fake news sites. Everyone can publish data or report stories, but it's how you use that data, and how you make sure that people understand what this data really means that make you unique as a fact-based newspaper.

Something might technically be a fact, but it's often reported as an opinion because of the journalistic focus.

The traffic problem

All the examples I have highlighted in this article very clearly illustrate why journalists have such a hard time standing out as a trustworthy source of news, but it also illustrates the traffic problem.

We know from studies that viral news sites generate about 20 times as much engagement on Facebook, per post, compared to hard news sites. We also clearly see how hyper-partisan sites drive far more engagement as well.

Try, for instance, to compare the engagement per post between BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed Video, and BuzzFeed News

BuzzFeed is one of the few who have truly separated their news division from their viral division. And BuzzFeed news is actually doing a remarkable job at creating a distinctive and reputable news channel (like I explained above).

But, their focus on creating valuable news also means that they have a very hard time getting people to engage with their stories. As such, their Facebook page is trying to make the news more shallow, and there is a noticeable difference in quality between how they post things on Facebook compared to the BuzzFeed News website.

This is reality today. Most of our social sites are optimizing for low-intent moment, because that creates a ton of micro-moments every single day, which adds up to a lot of 'engaged time', even though people don't really focus on anything specific.

This will not change, but also this isn't the best place for us to do news because it means only reaching people when they aren't really looking for anything specific. That's great for entertaining news or viral content (as well as hyper-partisan sites), but it's not a good channel for hard news.

One way of changing this is to try to focus it. One great example is AJ+, who on their Facebook page has become the voice of progressive, modern, and future looking muslims.

They are doing an amazing job getting people engaged in important issues. But the reason why they are succeeding is also because they are not just doing random shallow stories. Most of their content is tied into a purpose that people can connect with. It has focus, clarity, vision and a goal.

That's why they are able to stand out, even on Facebook.

The problem, however, is that they don't make any money from this. Facebook is terrible as a monetization platform, and there is currently no real monetization coming from video.

So, we need a different solution.

The reason why newspapers are losing today is because we are focusing on the wrong type of journalism, optimizing for the wrong type of audience, alienating the people who really care, not really understanding fact-based reporting, spending way too much time on reporting what people think, and focusing on a channel where the main focus is low-intent snacking.

If we want to change the future, we need to solve all of these. And that means not just changing the way we think about news and journalism, but also redefine how people engage with it. We need to reinvent news as a channel. We need to find a new way to connect with people.

But most of all. We need to focus on our reputation, and seriously step up how we do things so that we very clearly stand out from the rest. And the only way to do this is with consistent and pervasive excellence in every single thing we do.

And in case you are wondering if this is possible, look again at the YouTubers. They are winning because they take pride in making sure that every single video is the best that they could do.

We need to do the same for news. We need to make every single article count.


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Thomas Baekdal

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."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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