Gossip, news, or insight: What will you pay for?

Back in the 90s, the probability of coming across the good, the bad, and the ugly online was a simple ‘X square’, where ‘X’ is a superset of all the things online.

We have come a long way from then.

What started with The Dot Com Bubble in the mid-90s paved the way for establishing a whole new industry around technology in the early 2000s, making ‘information’ one of the most valued resources of the early 21st century. Access to information became the key to drive growth in the IT and other industries across the globe.

The smartphone revolution and Internet penetration have made sure we have access to a seemingly endless feed of content at our fingertips.
While Google’s Search engine was launched to help us efficiently navigate through all of that, it gradually but surely became the catalyst for the ‘trend-based’ content that is plaguing the current news industry.

We now live in a world where we are bombarded with information of all sorts every day. This often leaves us oversaturated, desensitized, and attention deficit.

As we start to care less and less, it’s easy to overlook things. That’s when the lines between the inherently distinct forms of information – news, opinion, rumor, fact, and fiction — start to blur for us.

While the lack of ingenuity is concerning in general, the biggest blow is served to those who are strictly in the business of delivering factual information like data journalists or even historians.

It’s like looking at a news report on estimated food grain loss due to impending locust attack in North India, with the same lens you see a speculative piece on celebrity breakup based on a trending photo. The optics are discomforting.

With the emergence of many news publishers (broadcast and digital), the competition to retain its viewership is getting harder. Thus it is necessary to put together content with the latest necessary information. Well, ideally it is equally important to deliver authentic and balanced news. But, it’s not an ideal world.

Since it takes money to run a newsroom and no one is willing to pay for news, even when they, many ‘straight news’ publishers have armed themselves with a ‘trends desk’ that churns out several listicles a day.
There is nothing inferior about listicles.

In fact, listicles could be a brilliant format to ease in complex subjects like personal finance management or Dalit Feminism Movement. But surely no one is interested. Personal finance is good SEO around Budget and Dalit Feminism won’t be trending until a Dalit woman hits the headlines.

Drake’s latest Tik Tok challenge for the win.

When journalistic content struggles to find its identity in the current volatile media space, it is convenient for misinformation to slip in. From deliberately spreading false information during COVID 19 pandemic to rumor-mongering to instigate lynching against Indian minorities, the Fake News machinery is a serious threat to legitimate sources of information and people’s lives.

While media houses (domestic and international) grapple to fact-check the rising number of fake news every day, polarisation has heightened in society, with many refuting mainstream media’s credibility.
Credibility is a major news value and researchers have used various measures and statistical procedures to understand relation between media credibility and viewership.

The pressure of round the clock news is already compelling news publishers to compromise on credibility and run after ‘breaking news’. An assessment study conducted by Center for Media Studies in New Delhi (CMS credibility tracking study press release available online) showed that even though the viewership of news channels has gone up, their credibility hasn’t.

President of the USA, Donald Trump’s use of ‘Fake News’ to refute the American media has only made things worse for media everywhere.
When encountering a controversial issue, the word ‘truth’ becomes subject to circumstances of each party involved. It’s no longer about who has the facts right, but what facts rightly fit our echo chambers.

And, we can thank some of this behavior to Facebook’s ‘News Feed’ that ranks stories based on a user’s likely preferences through a computer-controlled algorithm. In simple words, FB shows us what we like (read most engage with), filtering out what we aren’t fans of, creating an illusion that the world agrees with us.

We like and share the news we agree with, post the surveys and studies that conform to our views, and pass off those who challenge them as the insignificant minority or trolls. The result is this collective failure of a world that can’t face our realities with a pinch of salt.

How does one escape this bubble, then? Since going offline and becoming hermits is out of the question, we can start by listening to those we don’t agree with, instead of blocking them out.

The echo chambers and opinion bubbles have forced us into having a one-dimensional understanding of the world that is wanting of insight and nuance.

We must also bring the emphasis back to getting it accurate. Accuracy isn’t as simple as getting the facts right. The level of verification and authentication required differs from story to story, subject to subject. The requirement for accuracy for a factual entertainment or comic story will vary from that of a historical documentary or current affairs.

Experts, researchers, data scientists, storytellers, publishers, broadcasters, and the custodians of the fourth estate must take a fresh look at the business of information, fix what’s broken, and optimize existing resources to fill the insight need gap.

Social media engagement and views are good indicators of how content has performed. Using existing data and the algorithms would help with it, but absolute faith in numbers may blindside us.

Let’s ask ourselves: What is the last piece of news, blog, or opinion piece that has been shared on my social feed? Have I paid anything for it?
Ultimately, it comes down to what we value. When content makers identify ways for information to add value and help us grow, people pay a premium for it.