5 Trends Fueling Misplaced Media Blame and the Roots of the Digital Literacy Problem

Journalists are critical thinkers. They love to question. They push to know. They seek answers. They’re curious, adventurous, motivated, and action-oriented. What’s more, they are the lifeblood of a functioning democracy.

When I think of journalists, I think of people like Robert Kaplan, whose book “The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy” captivated me from a young age. I think of a journalism professor I had at the University of Maryland, who cancelled our class mid-morning on September 11th, 2001 to rush to the Pentagon and cover the unfolding story of 9/11 for the Associated Press. I also think about modern day journalists like Gadi Schwartz at NBC, who was the first journalist to report live from his cell phone via Periscope from a Northern California wildfire back in 2015, before any major news stations picked up the story.

Filled with purpose, a sense of adventure, and a desire to know the truth: this is the stuff real journalists are made of.

However, despite the best intentions of journalists specifically, and communications professionals in general, the spread of misinformation these days is alarmingly high and trust in mass media is at an all-time low. Most notably, Donald Trump recently referred to the media as “the enemy of the American people.” While these claims are not entirely unwarranted from certain personal perspectives, to call the media “the enemy” is pure fallacy. Hence, I wanted to explore the roots of this dangerous ideology.

Aside from my own personal interest in this topic, understanding this problem correctly inevitably ties back to the effectiveness of messaging in marketing. After all, the ability to craft and sell an idea is what marketing is all about.  Brand messaging, brand promises, brand values: all of these elements hinge on telling a story correctly, telling a story in a believable and engaging way, and telling a story that connects. But how do we get these messages across in an era marked by a crisis of trust? In a world filled with mis-information, how do we sift between real information vs. propaganda, and accurate truths vs. falsehood, when what people and customers want is authenticity, fairness, and transparency? Below are five trends I’ve identified that are currently affecting the negative perception of media in the marketplace.

Five Trends Affecting the Negative Perception of Media

  1. Erosion of trust in institutions
  2. Proliferation of fake news
  3. A changing journalism industry
  4. The birth of the echo chamber
  5. The digital literacy problem

1 – Trust in institutions globally is eroding. First things first, we all know that trust in the media is at an all-time low, but why? The 2017 annual Edelman trust barometer found that trust in institutions to do “what is right” declined broadly in 2017, a phenomenon not recorded since Edelman began tracking trust.

This global report points out that the root cause of distrust in the media (and institutions in general) can be tied to the widespread belief that the greater system is broken, and it’s a global phenomenon. As a result, this increases a person’s vulnerability, ultimately causing deeper distrust in institutions. The combination of distrust in institutions, a lack of faith in the system and a climate produced by societal and economic fears ultimately give rise to an increase in populist action.

2 – Fake news proliferates. Fake news has been around forever, but many people have trouble defining what it actually is. Taken literally, fake news is made up news. But more subjectively, it’s also news that’s being spun or manipulated to fit a particular interest or view point. Fake news can even be perceived as “fake” even if someone simply doesn’t like the news.

According to a presentation just given this past week at the Misinfocon Summit (sponsored by the MIT Media Lab and The Neiman Foundation for Journalism), fake news can be further subcategorized as news that makes a fake connection, provides false content, manipulated content, satire, misleading content, imposter content, fabricated content, or even news one dislikes.

Fake News Graphic.jpg

In summary, misinformation, and increasingly disinformation, is distorting people’s ability to make sense of the world around them, threatening the democratic process around the globe. It’s imperative that the greater journalism/media/technology industry works to tackle this larger issue. Creative summits like Misinfocon, or hackathons in general across the country, are not only working hard to think of new ways for journalism to succeed in this landscape, but people are beginning to come together to find some creative solutions.

3 – The journalism industry is rapidly changingNew York Times Editor Dean Baquet recently talked about how dramatically the newsroom has changed since he was a young man. Local and regional papers used to be the bread and butter of the newspaper industry, but as advertising models shifted and revenues plummeted, news became more centralized. The good old days of looking forward to the morning paper tossed out into the front yard by the local paper boy are gone: today people expect real-time reporting and 24-7 analysis backed up with a variety of multimedia options to choose from.

Sam Harris also talked about this idea in a podcast featuring former Middle East-based journalist and current staff writer for The New Yorker Lawrence Wright when Wright stated at 50 minutes:

When journalism has been weakened for more than two decades now, you know there’s been a cutback of the resources of journalism, so that the roots of our trade have been partially pulled up, especially at the local level … it’s very difficult to measure how big a loss that has been. It used to be there were news bureaus all over the world, different networks had bureaus in all of the world capitals and so on, and we were much more plugged in than we are now. The next step was the increasing partisanship that took over, especially in the broadcast media, so that in addition to reporting what was the news, there was a spin on it, an implicit comment on how the world is. So if you get your news from one station or the other, you have a different impression of what is actually going on. There’s not a consensus as their used to be about what was actually happening.

But even if a changing industry by default has caused some polarization, is journalism to blame? If some journalists lie, are all journalists bad? For more perspective, here’s another great conversation from CBS Morning news featuring Dean Baquet in his own words about journalism’s role in the truth-seeking process:

4 – The Formulation of the Echo Chamber

There has been much talk recently about the concept of the echo chamber. I recently wrote a blog post attempting to better understand this concept here. But first things first, what is an echo chamber? According to Wikipedia:

An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system. Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.

I recently listened to a podcast where at 27 minutes author Sam Harris was asked: “how do you think we can reasonably expect to break the echo chamber mentality in social media and online information?” It’s worth noting that Sam Harris is the author of such books as “Lying,” “The Moral Landscape,” and “Free Will,” which makes his answer all the more relevant. He said:

There is a difference between truth and lies. Real news and fake news. Actual conspiracies and imagined ones. And we cannot afford to have hundreds of millions of people in our society on the wrong side of those epistemological chasms.

In the podcast he goes on to talk about the implications with lying on a grand scale, and the need for civil dialogue in society. His full answer is certainly worth a listen.

With increasing access to filtered or preferred data, and the general bias inherent in particular mainstream news sources, polarization has become a major issue. Just take this graph for example:


So what’s the solution to the echo chamber problem? For business at least, Edelman’s Tonia Ries suggests peer-to-peer communication. In short, people need to help other people figure this out together:

5 – The problem of digital literacy.

When someone tells me that the media is constantly working to villainize the president from all angles, but has never once referenced the president’s own Twitter account because they don’t understand what Twitter is, we have a digital literacy problem. When someone tells me that all journalists are liars, but have never heard about the journalists in other countries who are being jailed or murdered while working to uncover unimaginable atrocities and unthinkable levels of corruption destroying vast segments of humanity, then we have an education problem. When someone who doesn’t use social media, but who carries an iPhone with GPS tracking in their pocket 24/7 tells me that they wish to remain completely anonymous in society by not posting on social media (while still keeping accounts so they can keep up with what’s going on), we have a lack of understanding about digital privacy. When someone tells me what’s wrong with the world, and that they rely on only one or two news sources for information, then we have a vulnerable population problem.

For these reasons and more, I think it’s important that we increase digital literacy, especially from the standpoint of journalism. To better explain, please watch this piece from Brian Stelter entitled:  “Democracy demands media literacy.”  I liked what he said when he stated: “A lot of well-meaning people don’t understand our work, they don’t understand who or what to believe. This is a media literacy problem.”

In summary, the media is not the enemy. But in the context of a shifting global economy and rapidly changing technological environment whereby everyone on the planet is feeling these effects, it might feel like the rug is sometimes being pulled out from underneath us. But it’s imperative that we strive to understand.

So the next time you want to take the easy road out and blame the media for saying something you don’t like, I urge you to ask yourself the tough questions in the context of these five trends and see if you can challenge yourself to think beyond the perceived problem to the bigger issues. As marketing professionals, it’s important to keep these trends in context and be sensitive to them as we forge the path ahead as communicators in a crowded and cautious marketplace.

Would love to hear your thoughts!


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