Everyone is to blame for clickbait and fake news

In Opinion

President Donald Trump is often alternately mocked or lauded for his usage of the term “fake news” to describe any story he didn’t like en route to the White House, but he is just the latest person to popularize that sort of minimization of the media’s reliability.

Journalists took to social media to cry foul in the lead up to the election. However, all Trump did was take a narrative journalists themselves had put forth about blogging and extended it to the mainstream media.

While those who repackage or share news content have a responsibility to not use deliberately or accidentally misinforming headlines, the world also needs to use and learn more basic news literacy skills if they wish for the population to remain informed instead of confused.

For years, journalists have minimized bloggers, or content aggregators, for the way they use search-engine-friendly headlines and so-called “clickbait” (because what writer wouldn’t want people to see their work?).This perpetuated a narrative that some news was fake, an idea Trump merely extended to all media.

(Dalia Quiroz / Daily Titan)

The case of ultimately disgraced prime minister David Cameron exemplifies both bloggers and journalists’ unprofessional behavior. He saw his political career tarnished by the widely distributed rumor that came to light in his biography about the sex act he had partaken in with a dead pig during his college days.

The rub? One of the authors of that book, journalist Isabel Oakeshott, said herself that she didn’t even know if the allegation was true. That didn’t stop bloggers from looking for clicks with headlines like “David Cameron Accused of Sex Act With a Dead Pig” from outlets like The Daily Beast.

Before long, fake news spreads around with little to no oversight because journalists and bloggers deny their involvement. Everyone wipes their hands of it and points the finger the other way, but that’s little solace to the person whose name is dragged through the mud. Instead of helping and informing the public, both parties end up destroying any established trust.

Journalists may criticize aggregators for misinforming people or killing the industry by taking people away from their papers, but most aggregators aren’t looking to mislead. They’re merely repackaging a reporter’s scoop in a way that makes it more accessible.

Does this sometimes lead to misinformation, like in the case of Cameron? Absolutely, but that’s less an issue with aggregators and more an issue with the way news is consumed in today’s social media and smartphone age.

As of 2016, “a majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often,” said to Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer of the Pew Research Center.

Though it’s accessible, it also becomes problematic because these bite-sized bits of clickable headlines can lead to a contagion of inaccuracy and mistrust. This leads to cracks in the foundation of the entire media industry in exchange for the small, short-term gain of clicks.

While the Pew Research study referenced by Gottfried and Shearer doesn’t define how the 62 percent of people they’re referencing are consuming that news, it stands to reason they aren’t taking in as much information. For some, “taking in news” just means glancing at headlines as they pop up on Twitter or Facebook.

This is where aggregators and bloggers begin to get a bad rap. In order for news outlets to get maximum exposure on a story, they need a quick, snappy headline. And while “Cameron allegedly stuck genitals in a pig, back in college days according to an anonymous, unverified source in a new biography looking to sell copies” would’ve been a more accurate way to package the news, even the paragon of journalistic integrity that is the New York Daily News went with “British PM David Cameron put private part inside dead pig during college initiation, book claims.”

That’s a problem. While Oakeshott defended the aside’s inclusion on England’s Channel 4 News by saying, “It’s up to other people to decide whether they give (the allegation) any credibility or not,” it’s not that simple. Just attributing something correctly isn’t enough when the general population’s news literacy isn’t up to snuff.

Researchers polled 7,804 United States middle school, high school and college student responses to basic tests of news literacy, and came to the conclusion that “overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summarized in one word: bleak,” according to a Stanford University study from November 2016.

The results of the study were so “bleak” that the researchers also wrote they “worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.” This is backed by results — 93 percent of the college student participants fell for a story in which a public relations firm posed as a news outlet offering supposedly reputable information, according to the same Stanford study.

With news literacy so poor and as more people consume content on mobile devices or through glances at social media, it’s no longer enough for bloggers and aggregators to point to their attributions. Many don’t click to open these stories and just get their news from the social media headline. Even when they do click the article, they can’t decipher what a reliable source of news is.

This is a media-wide news problem, not just a blogging one, but this isn’t to absolve aggregators or claim that all of them have the best intentions. Just like in journalism, there is a spectrum of people who blog or aggregate news, and some are more ethical than others. But to blame blogging for people being misinformed misses the point, the problem is larger.

If people and the media want less fake news going forward, aggregators and journalists alike have a responsibility to use ethics when writing headlines.

Both bloggers and journalists also need to do a better job of determining the veracity of a report in order to get clicks. Doing the latter might lead to a short-term gain, but these sensational, and often inaccurate headlines are why fewer people trust the media as a whole.

Blogging, social media and news literacy are all parts of the problem, and they all must be addressed if the world is going to solve its misinformation issue.

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