The Three Ways Journalism Must Change

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Building A Better Journalism: It won’t come easy, but there is a golden ticket to traditional media’s future.

It’s pretty clear traditional media is dying. Newspapers around the world continue to close every week, while others struggle to swing their momentum onto the Internet. Broadcast television sees its ratings plunging every years, losing out to emerging online news services that offer convenience and customization a television broadcast cannot.

And there’s a shift toward aggregators that traditional media has unsuccessfully fought from the start. The direction of news now seems inevitable, and traditional media finds itself forced to evolve into something the public can once again find value in.

It won’t come easy, but there is a ticket to future stability and success founded firmly in the traditions of classical fact-finding journalism.

Aggregators aren’t going away. Media must adapt

That news aggregators like the Huffington Post are everywhere is bad for the journalism business (immediately, anyway), but good for free exchange of ideas.

There is no shortage of writers on the Internet, so it’s extremely cheap to hire a writer to paraphrasing existing news articles. Aggregators’ success generally comes from their concise and simple writing — something that suggest to an audience that they’re saving time by cutting out all the unimportant stuff. After all, a majority of people online get their news from mere headlines.

But that’s the problem: Traditional media is packed with unimportant stuff, and largely refuses to tailor itself for web audiences.

Part of this is understandable: Most video-based news outlets make far more money on other mediums with higher viewerships, like television. But what will happen when the older demographics without smartphone news feeds leave?

The result of an Internet news–informed public is that the public has greater access to information that makes them a better-informed audience. This opens up a new market for journalism. Media — and mostly broadcast media — will need to be ready with a new kind of full-context, deeper-digging journalism.

Digging in: Experiential journalism

The slow stealing-away of readers and viewers by web-based media is speeding up. With more and more options for short, custom-tailored news available online, the big dogs of traditional media need to find a way to be relevant again in the coming decade, and the answer is right in front of them, but notoriously pricy.

Investigative journalism has gone through ups and downs in the past decade, as news outlets weigh its expensive nature against the benefit of having exclusive journalism that unpeels the onion to reveal the world’s hidden structure and reason.

This is a unique mode of journalism to which the public doesn’t usually have access. It works; News agencies just find it expensive to maintain with all their other coverage.

But as more of that other coverage is covered by more journalists (and thankfully a court includes independent news bloggers as “journalists”), traditional media will focus more on investigative efforts that prove to audiences their unique value.

Going away are the days of “here’s a little bit about everything.” People have smartphones for that. The focus of traditional media needs to be context — explaining the full experience in an immersive way.

There’s already a rapidly expanding market for long-form news. Vice News, for example, produces long-form stories, (or perhaps microdocumentaries — a term I’m coining) about what’s going on in the world. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is building a massive news operation, First Look Media, dedicated to depth, and has recruited some of the world’s most renowned investigative journalists and editors to do it.

Traditional media’s goal shouldn’t be building out its operations; it should be digging into what it covers well.

This is something aggregators can never do — and in my estimation the key to journalism’s future.

But the news also has to be done in a way that inspires more enlightened discussion of ideas, rather than playing off of the easy drama of people’s fears, outrage and tears.

Focus on facts rather than emotion

Parts of traditional media have largely evolved into a provocative melodramatic mess in the past two decades. News organizations have traded away their Sherlock Holmes investigating hats for the easy and profitable monetization of emotion.

Our media seems to equate tears with victimization, using others’ feelings as a universal measuring stick of how right or wrong an opinion or action is. Rather than digging deeper into the fundamental logic of something tragic, scary or offensive, news agencies simply insert a teary-eyed soundbite.

This is problematic for two reasons: First, it suggests the emotions are genuine and valid. It’s an industry secret that some of the best soundbites come from people who clearly just want to be on TV. It’s a chance to be a star, and many reporters specifically seek out less-than-qualified commenters for a story if they still give a powerful sound bite. From the short snippet you read or hear, you may have no idea the drama isn’t really authentic.

The second problem is that a powerfully emotional “victim” effectively shuts up all the naysayers. Remember Cindy Sheehan, the mother who camped out in front of George W. Bush’s Texas ranch in protest of the Iraq War. This in and of itself is something that could be supported or criticized — but she said she was protesting in honor of her son who had been killed by enemy gunfire in Iraq.

It’s really hard to constructively criticize the beliefs of someone who’s in pain. But an enlightened and educated public needs to be able to have that debate without looking like a heartless jerk.

That’s why the media needs to pay special care to its use of emotion in stories. It can’t allow the emotion to overtake or overwhelm the reporting of background and facts.

And we’re at a dangerous tipping point in American mainstream news today. It’s gotten to the point where unaffected civilians actually weep in front of cameras after reading offensive posts on social media.

Human emotion is indeed a powerful evocative tool, but it rarely informs the way media should. It’s hard to enlighten the public when such discussion is so emotionally upsetting to people. One can see how the public would fear rational discussion of a topic that’s mere mention had been shown to make others weep.

So I propose a new, stricter mode of journalism, in the classical tradition: Explain why someone is a victim rather than how the victim feels they’re a victim.

By definition, journalism is meant not to provoke hollow empathy but to inform a participatory audience.

For reporters to have any role disseminating information, they must have an audience to which they can share that information. The whole relationship relies on engaging the public at large in matters that matter.

That means we should perhaps question the authenticity of the woman whose “whole day” was “ruined” by reading a racist social media post. Is this a reasonable emotional response to seeing something you don’t like? If it is, what right should a person have in expressing offensive ideas in his spare time, off the job? In a society based on free speech, should a person like this be suspended or fired from his job anyway? Aside from the few who cried when confronted with ignorance of bigotry, what are the actual implications to the world?

That is what journalism is about. That’s what journalism needs to get back to.

While emotion is important is telling a story, it clouds our rationale. A tearful, last-ditch appeal from a young woman in court is powerful, but lacks context to tell a complete story, clouding the understanding of the viewer. It pulls at our heart strings until we realize the person may have some responsibility for her own emotional toil. Could that despair from a young woman be justified and deserved, for perhaps beating a toddler to death?

Maybe there’s more to the story than what emotions convey.

Journalism needs to be emotionally cold at times to explain what happened, and let its audience determine how to feel.

Journalism needs the bravery to avoid the easy drama and find the real issues.

We’re getting there.

As long as the Internet remains free, it is inevitable that the competition will force media outlets to adapt and survive. How quickly we see the news landscape change, however, depends on how cooperative traditional media wants to be as the world becomes more and more connected.

We can be certain that journalism will not go away, as long as there’s an educated audience that seeks it out. And as long as news continues to enlighten audiences with useful information, they will remain educated. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

There will always be a place for traditional media — as long as it’s willing to put in the work.

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