How to build trust in media? Slow down and stop shouting

How to build trust in media? Slow down and stop shouting
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

We’re stuck in a cycle of performative media — where we breathlessly perform for algorithms. It’s unsustainable, writes the editor-in-chief.

Just because you can do something, should you?

If I could boil down all the nagging, warning and reminding that I give my three-year-old daughter (the poor thing) every day, that question about responsibility does a good job. It’s the key heuristic as a responsible adult — there is so much I can say and do as I learn about the world and gain greater independence, but should I? To answer that question well requires some knowledge of ethics, politics, economics, history. A life well lived is therefore a life well learned.

Unfortunately, much of the media industry failed this test long ago.

Attention sins

By long ago, I mean loooong ago.

As soon as Lynde M Walter created the first “penny newspaper” in Boston nearly 200 years ago, there was an incentive to create a media product whose customers were advertisers (whose purchases financed the newspaper), instead of readers (because not enough of them are prepared to pay a high enough price to make the product viable without advertising… sound familiar?)

As Tim Wu writes in The Attention Merchants, “Every time you find your attention captured by a poster, your awareness, and perhaps something more, has, if only for a moment, been appropriated without your consent.”

I was reminded of this while watching comedian Bill Maher’s takedown of news reporting on Friday evening. Ironically titled “Bill Maher DESTROYS the media”, the Real Time chat show host lambasts news outlets for a series of sins which, sadly, have become routine behaviour in online and TV journalism:

>> reporting what makes for good video instead of what has most impact on society

>> routine use of hyperbolic headlines (“clickbait”) that fail to deliver what they promise

>> quoting “the internet” as a source

>> pandering to audiences instead of informing them

>> being so eager to report a story “first” that initial reports are often inaccurate

Demand is high but supply is enormous

“The media doesn’t care about truth because they know you [the viewer/reader] don’t care,” Maher concludes.

This is where Maher is guilty of putting out bad information. The media care and so do consumers.

I’ve worked in many different kinds of newsroom over the years and have spoken to hundreds of journalists over that time. Yes, there is often cynicism and complaints, whether it’s about readers not caring about ‘proper news’ or bean-counter bosses’ only concern being related to clicks and dwell time, but generally there is a commitment to the truth and journalists take that role seriously.

This is why Forbes’ recent made-for-advertising revelations — that it had operated a shadow MFA scheme for several years — cut through as a truly shocking story.

Consumers care, too, We are constantly searching for information, thanks to the ubiquity of computers and internet search engines. We wouldn’t be Googling stuff all day if were weren’t desperate to know what is going on in the world and where to get the stuff to do the thing at the place before it shuts at what time?

We are information junkies. But even though the demand for information is high, there is vast oversupply. It’s now easy to feel lost and overwhelmed in a sea of low-quality content.

Break the pattern

The so-called attention merchants’ answer is to shock, surprise, and pander.

I felt compelled to write this after reading Matt Hill’s response to a questionable story headline that compared Meta’s adspend to global linear TV spend.

Hill used the C-word (clickbait) to describe the offence, which seemed particularly egregious to him because it was committed by Warc, “an organisation that is better known for valuable insights”.

Do you see the pattern here? Media outlets with reputations to protect, are being dragged into the sewer of clickbait accusations and MFA schemes.

But it’s the distribution of content that forces all publishers to play this game. If your main outlet is posting stuff on social media, you play the game by satisfying content feeds which are governed by algorithms, which incentivises hyperbolic and teasing headlines which rarely fail to deliver because — sorry to break it to you — real life isn’t that interesting and you aren’t that interesting either.

Performance media

But it’s a wider problem than news or publishing.

An excellent piece written recently by Goodstuff’s Ketan Lad warned how this constant battle for our attention by media is now harming the very people behind this — people who work in media and advertising!

If we care about media being about quality and sustainability, so that it keeps people in well-paid jobs for the long term, then the best advice we can give ourselves is to slow down and shut up. We’re too eager to be ‘first’ and too eager to be noisy, which means even media agency folk are extolling the benefits of switching off.

Just because you can be a performer in this maturing online world doesn’t mean you should be.

Omar Oakes is editor-in-chief of The Media Leader

100% Media 0% Nonsense is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our daily newsletter to get this column first in your inbox every Monday, as well as key updates with what’s happening at The Media Leader and our upcoming events. 

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