Hook, Line, and Sinker: Media Disruptors That Will Influence the Industry in 2017

By: Taylor Hill
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

In 2016, disruptors of the newspaper-publishing model—from digital distribution, mobile platforms, and social media networks—contributed to what has culminated in the most disruptive year in American mainstream media in some time. And while the rise of “fake news” captured headlines, it’s not a 21st Century phenomenon. The proliferation of untruthful-on-purpose stories has persisted since the invention of the printing press (before that, they were just called “rumors”).

But what has changed is how the stories, once relegated to the Weekly World News on grocery store magazine racks (who could forget Bat Boy?), are now disseminated. The internet and the digital revolution have paved the way for anyone with an idea—no longer beholden to publishers—access to audience. Social media is their bullhorn, and their distribution platform. Now, when you scroll through Facebook or Twitter, a real story with real sources looks identical to a fake story; same size, same font, different link. “Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby” is alongside “Hillary Clinton Email Scandal” is next to “Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Senior Strategist Practices Occult Rituals” and so on.

In a year when live streaming video feeds from social media users pushed stories of racially charged police violence into the national spotlight, and trending technologies such as expiring content (a la Snapchat and Instagram Stories) and immersive technologies including VR were promised to upend how we consume news, the climax of the year came in Nov. 8, when Donald J. Trump won the presidency. Technology’s power to perpetuate disinformation across modern media platforms had been exposed—potentially influencing the American electorate in the process. Now, the challenge for the newspaper industry will be how to respond to an age-old media problem in a new media world.

Here are a few media disruptors the newspaper industry should be bracing for in 2017.


Fake News

In the 2016 political season, no one was safe from false information scrolling across social media feeds—even Donald Trump Jr. retweeted an obviously fake email supposedly from Hillary Clinton showing she secretly paid off pollsters to fudge poll results. Stories meant to intentionally mislead became the story in 2016—to the chagrin of journalism, which relies on facts, truth, and reality.

For newspapers, the problem is that online and on social media platforms such as Facebook’s newsfeed, misinformation and purposefully deceitful content can run alongside a Washington Post or New York Times story—garnering just as many clicks, if not more. The shift has put individuals such as Mike Cernovich, a champion of the alt-right, Clinton conspiracy theorist, and Twitter star in the same echelon as institutional media giants.

“The media still thinks of itself as speaking truth to power,” Cernovich told the New Yorker in October. “What they don’t realize is that someone like me is perceived as the new Fourth Estate.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri and longtime critic of fake news, told the New York Times in November that “journalism is partly to blame” for the proliferation of fake news. Traditional media outlets’ inability to adjust as the internet upended established business models, and social media flooded users with alternative news sources allowed “fake news to get way out ahead of them,” she said.

In 2017, the work to stop the flow of disinformation is just beginning. Facebook, which has long avoided being held accountable for the quality of “news” sites posting to the newsfeed, began experimenting in December on ways to limit misinformation posted on its site.

Some of the tests include making it easier for Facebook’s 1.8 billion users to report fake news, and figuring out ways to limit advertising dollars that go to individuals or groups on Facebook who regularly post fake news and profit from it.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the site will also be teaming up with third-party fact checkers such as ABC News, The Associated Press, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes, a website dedicated to determining “true” and “false” statement on the internet since 1995.

“The initiative is aimed at confronting the increasing volume of misinformation online by enhancing users’ ability to report questionable posts and providing a mechanism by which their accuracy can be evaluated by third-party fact checkers and flagged where appropriate as ‘disputed,’ so that social media users can learn more and make informed choices before sharing them,” Snopes wrote in a blog post.

In some countries, waiting for social media sites to figure out how to stop the flow of misinformation isn’t enough. In an interview with the Financial Times, Italy’s antitrust chief, Giovanni Pitruzzella, said EU countries should set up independent bodies which would be instructed to quickly label fake news, work to remove those from circulation, and impose fines if necessary.

“Post-truth in politics is one of the drivers of populism and it is one of the threats to our democracies,” Pitruzzella said. “We have reached a fork in the road: we have to choose whether to leave the internet like it is, the Wild West, or whether it needs rules that appreciate the way communication has changed.”

For newspapers to survive, Michael Rosenblum, founder of Current TV, said publishers need to produce content in a new way—the all-inclusive, open style of the internet.

Instead of having New York Times, Washington Post or NBC employees curate the content you read or see, the news could come from anyone, at any time—but with a “seal of approval” from said publication.

While thousands of individuals are writing and uploading video on a daily basis—most of which is “utterly rubbish,” Rosenblum wrote in a Huffington Post blog post, “The free press also gave us J.K. Rowling, who gave us Harry Potter. She was what we might call a ‘citizen writer.’ Just a woman with an idea and a pencil. A blogger, before there were blogs.”

The smart move, according to Rosenblum, is for newspapers and media companies to go “from being sole creators of their own content to being publishers of the best of all content. Let them apply their same standards of excellence not just to their own stuff but also to the world of thousands of other people around the world who now, unleashed, are also creating content.”


Real-Time Fact Checking

In the midst of the 2016 presidential race, National Public Radio decided to try something new: Take a near real-time annotation of a transcript from the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and have a team of 30 newsroom staffers fact-check the candidates’ comments, and post them on their website.

The massive effort worked, with more than 7 million people visiting the site in just one day—a record audience for the public nonprofit media organization. Some called the fact-checking bias, as NPR staffers ended up fact-checking more of Trump’s statements than Clinton’s.

“It’s not possible to fact-check every candidate statement,” NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen wrote in a blog post. “Some additional statements could have been checked but, overall, I think NPR’s team offered a valuable service that met the goal of providing citizens with information they need to make their November decisions.”

In 2017, that type of real-time fact checking will be infiltrating more of your news sources and social media feeds. At the Washington Post, the politics team introduced a new plug-in extension for Google Chrome and Firefox internet search engines that will automatically supply additional context and fact-checking of Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

One example shows a Trump tweet where he explains “in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions who voted illegally.”

When the extension is downloaded, a gray box will appear below Trump tweets, and in the case of the illegal voting tweet, The Washington Post wrote: “Trump didn’t win in a landslide in any sense, but more importantly there is absolutely no evidence that there were a significant number of votes cast illegally, much less ‘millions’ of them.”

While billed as straight fact checking, David Z. Morris at Fortune Magazine questions the intent of the Post’s targeting of Trump’s Twitter account. He pointed to one Tweet where the Washington Post’s commentary bordered on partisan apologetics—clarifying that DNC chairperson Donna Brazile’s actions of emailing questions that were to be asked in a Democratic primary town hall event to Hillary Clinton’s campaign were not illegal.

“We’re now in a political climate where even studiously objective fact-checkers like Snopes and Politifact get branded as ‘far-left’ when they comment on dubious right-wing news,” Morris wrote. “If the Post truly wants to encourage more measured dialogue—rather than just flattering those who have done things that are ‘in no way illegal’—they may want to reassess their approach.”


Media Bias Goes Ballistic

Criticism around the increasing political bias in the media reached epic proportions in 2016; with television interviews regularly turning into shouting matches on air and many newspapers straight out calling the new president a liar. All the while, the ratings for many television news networks are soaring ever higher, cable networks are drawing in record audiences, and even newspapers are reaching online readership highs.

Unfortunately, the cost of all that one-sidedness in news stories has in part led to Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” to drop to an all-time low. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 32 percent of respondents said they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media—down eight percentage points from last year—and the lowest mark since the question was first asked in 1972.

At the same time, print subscriptions are continuing to decline, exacerbated by a print advertising plunge that was “much more precipitous, to be honest with you, than anybody expected a year or so ago,” The Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker told Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times.

That spells trouble, as nearly half of newspaper readers surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research poll consumed newspaper only in the printed form, and newspaper business models rely on the printed product for more than three-quarters of their advertising revenue.

Since 2000, the number of journalists in newsrooms across America has been cut nearly in half—down to 32,900 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 U.S. dailies, according to the American Society of News Editors 2015 annual census.

That decline leaves the remaining news members less equipped to publish accurate, timely news without just aggregating and re-writing possibly error-laden stories—leaving media outlets vulnerable to fake news bait. Additionally, click-based advertising pushes editors and writers to publish evermore-sensational, potentially inaccurate headlines online, allowing fake news sites to survive amongst the hyperbole.

The movement has also spurred popularity in alt-right publications such as Breitbart News and Occupy Democrats to the far left. Those types of news organizations, which regularly post and promote misinformation, can perpetuate biases through the social media channels we use on a daily basis to get our news.

“Facebook and Google keep giving users more of what they want to see through proprietary algorithms,” Brooke Borel wrote on FiveThirtyEight.com. “This may be great for entertainment, but it doesn’t help when it comes to news, where it may just strengthen existing bias.”

But the final firewall against perpetuating media bias is ourselves.

“We’re the ones consuming all this news. Our clicks feed ads and show media companies what sorts of stories go viral—which can lead to more of those types of stories,” Borel said. “Each time you like a Facebook post, your connections become a new audience. And it has your implicit signature of approval. We can think before we click: Who is providing this news? Do they have incentives to lie? And if we see our connections spreading lies, how might we confront them?”


Democratization of News—Gatekeepers Gone

Social media blew the gates off news distribution and broadcasting platforms some at the beginning of this decade, pushing a disruptive new voice loud and clear through multiple media channels.

Suddenly, social media and public publishing platforms were empowering the voiceless in closed-media countries, and once-isolated groups could communicate and gather in real-time. The shift has been seen as partly responsible for triggering the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and jump-starting the Arab Spring across the Middle East. But the consequences of crowd-sourcing news aren’t always so honorable.

In the aftermath and confusion of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, users of Reddit—a 70-million-plus-member online community—wrongfully accused a missing 22-year-old, Sunil Tripathi, of being behind the bombings, posting his photo on Facebook and Twitter as one of the bombing suspects. Tripathi’s family received threats for their son’s involvement, even though he had nothing to do with the bombing. Tragically, Tripathi was already dead, his body found later in Rhode Island’s Providence River.

In a post for Nieman Journalism Lab, media consultant Erin Pettigrew explained it like this: “Where our culture of broadcast media once catered to the center and traded on trust, the age of social media thrives on contagious, memetic ideas replicating via network effects,” she wrote. “In oppressed countries, this opportunistic channel enables needed protest to rise from the everyman. In established democracies, it can be rapidly gamed toward destabilization.”

In 2017, the flow toward individual, or citizen journalism will continue, as social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Youtube, and Instagram push live broadcasting, where users post live video footage to their home pages. News sites are using the social media’s “live” features to reach new online audiences, and now it appears marketers could be hopping on the bandwagon to further blur the lines of journalistic integrity.

“If we are able to harness the incredible data users are offering us through live video and exploit the right technologies, 2017 should be the year we see true moment-based, real-time advertising come to life,” Jon Elvekrog, managing director of advertising company 140 Proof, wrote for MediaPost. “Marketers have been obsessed with real-time interactions for years and have gotten more and more creative with their campaigning, incorporating environmental, social and political factors into strategies.”


The Power of Immersive Video

When Google Glass came out in 2014—and quickly went away eight months later—the idea of augmented reality or virtual reality devices becoming mainstream took a hit. But Snapchat’s selfie lenses, the wild success of Pokémon Go, and the increasing options available for virtual reality headsets are paving the way for 2017 to be the year of AR/VR.

Augmented reality provides a digital overlay onto the real world (think of the popular dog tongue and dog ears Snapchat filter). It may just seem like child’s play now, but Shane Scranton, CEO and co-founder of IrisVR, thinks AR headgear—such as Snapchat’s Spectacles—could pave the way and eventually support the more immersive and realistic capabilities available for pricey VR products like Oculus Rift and Playstation VR.

“We believe that, in the future, AR will drive the widespread adoption of immersive technology, and VR will be available on the same devices as AR,” Scranton said, “and this enables massive opportunities for gaming, social networking, and collaborative enterprise.”

For journalists and publishers, AR/VR could be an opportunity to grab readers’ attention on a whole new level and make a story more powerful than ever before. Studies have shown that virtual reality experiences can impact thoughts and behaviors in the real world. The immersive technology can place individuals in others’ shoes in an entirely novel way.

In one example, one group of participants were shown time-lapse video footage of a coral reef dying, while another group was given VR headgear, and a similar video that depicted the individual as a piece of coral reef. Over the time-lapse, viewers would watch as their coral limbs were corroded by ocean acidification. The researchers found that those who experienced the VR simulation perceived acidification to be a more imminent environmental problem than the participants who just watched the video on a screen.

“Across dozens of studies, a pattern emerges in that VR tends to be a more effective tool than other media and role-playing techniques,” Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told NBC News.

Media outlets are beginning to adopt the technology, but are still working on figuring out best storytelling practices in an immersive experience that requires text, audio, video footage, graphics and “navigation cues” that signal where the viewer should be looking, and when.

“There is no question that VR has the power to break down barriers and deeply move people,” The World Editors Forum stated in its 2016 Trends in Newsrooms annual report. But too much visual stimulation could overwhelm or offend viewers, too. “There is concern that the high level of immersion may be so intense that it could be psychologically damaging. Correct labeling is critical,” the report said.

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Published: February 1, 2017


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