I recently realized something very critical about how the internet works today and how broken it is.
The assumptions that readers are making about the information they find online – even at relatively “reputable” sites – are wrong. The internet is breaking what “journalism” means. As a result, it’s become even more critical for online information consumers (that’s you and me, by the way) to take on a burden we haven’t been trained to even concern ourselves with until now.
The burden of confirmation.
I’ve written about it before, but the sad fact is,you just can’t believe everything you read on the internet. It is now your practical responsibility to do the legwork to confirm whether something is or is not true.
Yes, I agree: that’s totally broken.
It’s partly our fault.
What drives the internet
Most websites on the internet measure traffic. More visitors equals more success. It’s as simple as that. Whether the success is measured in advertising revenue or product sales, the bottom line is that more eyeballs are critical to most site’s success.
I’ll admit that this is also true for Ask Leo! More visitors make my endeavor more successful.
So, how does one get traffic?
My approach has been relatively straightforward: write articles I think are helpful and informative, answer real questions asked by real people, sprinkle them with my own editorial and other content, and hope that people discover me via the search engines when they’re looking for an answer to a problem. Unfortunately, that approach isn’t as effective as it once was.
Perhaps as a result, more and more sites use different techniques to attract site visitors, or “clicks.”
Perhaps the most common approach to generating traffic these days is the sensational or salacious headline – one that says something so strong or outrageous you just have to click through to read more.
“How the Internet is Breaking Journalism” might be considered such a headline, although I think it’s fairly mild in comparison to some that I’ve seen. (I’m not really very good at headline writing.)
The resulting article may, or may not, deliver on the headline’s promise. Many do not. I hope this one does.
The headline served its purpose: it got you to click, the site got a “page view,” and perhaps an ad was shown. Mission accomplished. The fact that the accompanying article was total rubbish or content-free is immaterial. (I hope this one isn’t one of those. 🙂 )
Many continue with provocative and typically unsubstantiated information, all to get you to spend more time on the site, click through to additional pages, or, even better, recommend the article to your friends.
All this effort is often at the expense of what we refer to as truth, accuracy, or, occasionally, balance.
The truth is often boring and doesn’t generate page views.
When it comes to the news, however, there’s another factor at play.
News in internet time
Because the internet is instantaneous, there’s tremendous competitive pressure to get your article published as quickly as technologically possible.
This often happens at the expense of facts, replacing them with rampant and sometimes wild speculation. Speculation that is often presented or interpreted as fact.
Confirming facts takes time and resources. The immediacy of internet publishing has removed the luxury of time and budget; other constraints erode the resources required to even do the work.
News and other sites that cover current events are often faced with a very simple choice:
- Speculate today
- Be correct tomorrow
Getting something out today almost always wins … accuracy be damned.
Why you and I are part of the problem
The satirical news parody site, The Onion nailed it with an article, Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.
The article is a fictitious “explanation” of why a major news site – CNN.com – highlighted the antics of the singer at the previous night’s music awards show on its home page.
The only thing fictitious about the article is its attribution. Everything else is frighteningly accurate.
It’s all about clicks and page views and time-on-site and advertising revenue and … well, you get the idea.
The fact is simple: you and I are much more likely to click stories about the outrageous antics of a pop singer than we are to click stories about what one might consider “real news,” such as atrocities happening elsewhere in the world.
News sites are simply giving us what we want, as measured in clicks.
The same is true for the salacious headlines, fact-free articles, and sensational speculation-as-truth littered all over the internet.
We don’t click on boring, and we don’t fact check anything.
I have no solution, but…
I’m not about to change journalism or human nature.
People will click on what we’re going to click on, and website owners are going to respond as they see fit for their business.
As an information consumer, however, I want you to be aware of two exceptionally important things:
Your decisions and actions drive the internet. You may believe that it’s big (or small) business doing whatever they want to make money, but the fact is, they can’t do that without you. The more you visit certain sites, the more you’re implicitly endorsing what they do and how they do it. As a result, they’re going to do more.
Seriously. That’s exactly how it works.
You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. This pains me deeply, because while almost everyone says this, it seems no one acts like they understand it. It’s absolutely amazing the wild and wacky stuff that people will believe if it’s published online. The fact is, even those sites we consider reputable will fall into the trap of publishing inaccurate and misleading information1 – and yet people believe it all without question.
And that’s what has to change.
You must question everything
This is where I really believe that internet journalism is letting us down. This is how the internet has broken journalism.
You and I now have do the legwork that we could, in the past, assume journalists and authors had at least made an attempt to do themselves.
It’s horrible. It’s awful. It’s frustrating. It shouldn’t be this way.
And yet, it is what it is.
You and I must (and I do mean must) take everything we read online with a grain of salt. Nothing can be believed without question.
You and I must do the job that in the past we might have relied on good journalism to at least begin to do for us: confirm the truth, check sources, clarify statements, and see through the hyperbole.
Of course, the practical reality is that we can’t actually do that for every single thing we encounter. As a result, we develop relationships with sources that we trust – venues that have proven themselves to be honest, accurate, and at least somewhat diligent about presenting truth as truth, speculation as speculation, and avoiding the temptation to do just about anything for a page view.
Naturally, I hope Ask Leo! is one of those sites.
But even for those sites that you trust, you must keep up your guard and do your own due diligence. Accidentally or not, it’s very easy to get it wrong.
And if I ever start posting about the antics of half-naked pop-stars, slap me. Hard.