Today’s digital media environment has gutted a lot of what the news used to be. It’s become more convenient, accessible and snackable, but it’s also eroded some of the normative functions of journalism and muddied the waters of what ‘news’ is.
Journalism now comes under the umbrella of ‘content’, which is used to compete for eyeballs and clicks (see: advertising revenue). In an increasingly crowded and noisy landscape, journalistic tenets like fairness and balance don’t always meet the x-factor criteria to get cut-through.
Clickbait articles often occupy premium digital real estate, and make for enticing push notifications.
Sexy, provocative headlines that trigger those oh-so-valuable clicks often sit more comfortably with commentary and opinion pieces, rather than genuine investigative reporting into complex issues.
An example is the provocative – and incorrect – story about the withdrawal of funding to a Shakespeare festival, supposedly because the Bard wasn’t woke enough. The predictably easy path to outrage about political correctness madness was far easier and more eye-catching than the more mundane truth of the matter.
There’s nothing wrong with insight, but it can make it hard for readers to differentiate news from opinion.
Advocacy journalism is too often one-sided. Journalists now have social media profiles to grow, and it’s much easier to get noticed when you have a hot take or two.
Globally, many news leaders believe digital platforms are at least partly to blame for declining levels of trust in the news. In New Zealand, continual disengagement with local government elections is a symptom of this.
But is the media part of the problem, or part of the solution?
It’s probably a bit of both.
Balance can be a sticky wicket - if equal weight is to be given to all arguments in all instances, then disinformation, provocative statements and COVID-19 conspiracy theories should therefore be covered.
That leads to an equally interesting conversation about whether the media also has a right and responsibility to refuse certain views. Climate change is a good example, where a certain level of fact is no longer in dispute, despite lingering opposition in some circles.
There will always be subjectivity in this debate. It’s an imperfect system, and each news outlet is making judgement calls everyday that impact where they land on the spectrum of balance - and ultimately the level of public trust they enjoy.
The upshot for us as communications professionals is knowing how to navigate this environment, because it’s a bear pit out there. How do we make sure those judgement calls fairly represent and protect clients?
At the same time, with more and more new digital channels, we need to think carefully about how we help clients to reach their key stakeholders.
The media is an effective and important channel for communicating with the public, and our ability to get them coverage is one measure of effectiveness, but it’s not the only option anymore.
Ironically, those same new channels that have impacted traditional media can also be used to keep stakeholders informed.
As communication specialists, one of our key functions is helping clients develop content that resonates with their stakeholders. That means choosing the right channel and delivering engaging messages to suit, so client voices are heard through all the noise.