Welcome back to the newsletter. In this edition we are going to talk about the war in Ukraine, but not the war itself, instead our role as the press in relation to it.
We are going to talk about advertising and audience revenue, the importance of acting as a verification filter, the increasing problem with news fatigue, and the mental health of our readers.
Over the past week, we have seen many examples of brands blocking advertising next to news about the war in Ukraine, and we have also seen many people in the media express frustration about this.
As a media analyst, I agree. It is very frustrating. We need money for journalism to cover this crisis. But, I also once worked for a fashion brand where I was in charge of our digital ad budgets (among other things), and ... well, I hate to say this ... if I was still working in that role, I too would have blocked advertising next to war coverage.
In my latest Plus article, I explain why this is, and why we as publishers are undermining our own market by insisting that brands should advertise anyway. I also talk about what other revenue streams we have, and why those are also being undermined by our actions.
Take a look at: "Wars and advertising don't mix... but we also make it harder for ourselves".
I have often talked about how journalism needs to change its role now that everyone can and does publish, and the war in Ukraine illustrates this more than ever.
The internet is an amazing place, but it's also an incredibly messy place. Right now, we see all kinds of information being published online. We see some really good information, and we see some really bad information that is deliberately intended to spread lies and propaganda, and then we see everything in between.
On top of that, the frequency of posts online is so high that everyone is just blasted away with bits of information, and as a result, the internet currently feels like this:
It's just a total mess, and the public has no ability to pick out what is what. They can't verify a tweet, they can't determine whether something is important or not, they can't check the photos, nor understand whether an example is an isolated occurrence or part of a bigger problem.
And when the public is in this state, we lose our ability to make informed decisions, and instead, we see people just making up whatever version of reality they like.
This is not good. Even though good information is in there, we do not have an informed public.
But it also illustrates why, as the press, we can't add to this. If all we are doing is to 'report the news', where we tell people that this person said that, and this other person said this, oh and this was tweeted over here, but then this other thing was tweeted here ... all we are doing is to add to the noise.
This doesn't help anyone. It just reflects on the problem that people experience everywhere else. But worse than that, it undermines the press because we don't appear any different. And so, people stop trusting the news simply because there is no way to determine what can actually be trusted.
We are just overwhelming the public in such a way that they cannot define a focus.
So, as a media analyst, I believe that the role of the press is not to report, but to act as a lens. Especially during times of crisis.
The lens has three functions.
First, it must filter out the poor information. The story that cannot be verified, the lies, the deception, the propaganda, and the confusion.
Secondly, it must filter out the noise, and focus the coverage in such a way that it feels like a relief. The best way I can explain is to think about it like noise canceling headphones.
Imagine you are in a very crowded space and there is a ton of noise coming from everywhere, but then you put on your noise canceling headphones and it all just goes away. And now only the sound that you are choosing to focus on can be heard.
As newspapers, we should do the same thing. The news should be a place away from noise. A place of focus and clarity.
And this is pretty important because, right now, many people are turning away from news because we are not making people feel that this place is special. In fact, some news coverage feels even more noisy. It feels like you are just being bombarded with things.
The third thing is that we need to dramatically increase our standards. One of the most important elements in standing out from the crowd is to do it in such a way that it really feels different, and more so, that it's consistent enough so that you never have to worry about whether you can trust the information or not.
Sadly, in the press we suffer from an addiction of covering the news. Whenever we come across a picture that looks really dramatic, all journalistic standards go out the window.
Let me give you a simple example. So, last week, Russia tried to capture one of Ukraine's Nuclear power plants. Now, that's obviously a bad thing, and there was fighting within the compound.
So, in the news we covered it like this:
And this is just a small sample. This picture and headline were all over pretty much most of the newspapers.
There is just one problem. The picture does not show what the newspapers claim. This picture is not a fire, nor is it part of an artillery shell. Instead, it's a simple flare that is gently falling to the ground in a parking lot half a kilometer away from the actual nuclear reactors.
Don't get me wrong. There was fighting, and some buildings were hit, also half a kilometer away, (which you can see in this video), and obviously we don't want any fighting near a nuclear power plant.
But the problem is, we used the wrong picture. We tried to make something appear different to what it actually was.
And what frustrates me even more is that we have seen several news sites post explanatory videos about how they are doing geolocation and fact-checking of every video before it is decided whether we can use it. Here is a really good video about it from CNN. But then, when that video of the flare appeared, all the news sites, including CNN, just posted it without doing any of that work. They didn't verify what was actually happening, nor did they geolocate where the actual fire was.
As a media analyst, it's things like this that just make me want to scream. Every time we try to do good journalism, we just mess it up because we keep giving into the drama.
In other words, we become part of the noise again.
And what makes this even more frustrating is something that Jay Rosen pointed to last week. It was related to an article about something else, but he tweeted:
It's not only essential that journalists verify what they're reporting, but users of the product have to be able to verify what they're told.
So take this story/video that appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. It says: "Video shows fire at building on site of largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine".
Now what do you think happens when people click on this video and instead see a flare slowly falling to the ground and landing in a parking lot?
What are they verifying? Well, they are verifying two things:
Again, there was a fire (that was real), but people now start to question that fact because the supporting evidence is published as a lie.
This is the single most effective way to undermine the news. And this is just one example. As a media analyst, I see examples like this almost every day.
We have to stop doing this. Sure, a lot of other journalism has been really good. In fact, overall, I would say that we are covering the war in Ukraine really well. But every time we make these mistakes, we undermine all that work.
This leads us to the question of news fatigue.
As many of you know, I have spent a considerable amount of time looking into the trends and the problems around news fatigue and news avoidance. I did an experiment around it back in 2019 (podcast episode here), I wrote more about this in a report for the European Broadcast Union in 2020 (free to read, but requires registration), and I have also done several presentations about it, one was for the Constructive Institute's "24 Hours for the Future of Journalism".
The reason why I'm focusing on this so much is because of how it undermines our journalism. When we bombard the public with news that makes them feel worse, that they can't do anything about, and that isn't distinctive in its value from all the rest of the noise of the internet ... well... people give up.
When I have talked about this in the past, I have used (and licensed) this comic:
This is important when it comes to the war in Ukraine. It has all the elements necessary for maximum news fatigue and news avoidance. You have a high level of extremely negative emotions, which people cannot sustain over time without it leading to mental health problems. Meaning, it's only a matter of time before they turn off the news simply to protect their own health.
We have a story that we can't do anything about. I mean, sure, you can donate if you have the means to do that ... but outside of that, 99.999999% of the public outside of Ukraine can't do anything. So, it's just doom-scrolling.
And we have a volume of stories that is so high and so aggressively published that it literally causes people to have stress reactions, to lose sleep, and be unable to think clearly about things.
Of course, that's nothing compared to how people in Ukraine are suffering, but that's not helpful. It's not useful to keep the public in a state where they can't think clearly.
The problem is that, as I'm writing this newsletter, the war in Ukraine has only lasted for about 12 days. For people in Ukraine, this must seem like forever, but from every other perspective, it's a really short period of time. The point being that the public is still in the 'early shock phase', which generates a ton of news consumption.
But, as soon as that starts to taper off (which has already started, as you can see in this graph), that's when the news fatigue sets in. And unless we do something about this now, we will see two outcomes:
First, a large percentage of the public will turn away from the news as a way to protect their own sanity.
Another large group will start to become more and more irrational and polarized. This is a stress reaction to being overburdened by the news. And we have to look at what happened during COVID to see how that impacts society.
So, as publishers, we need to bring this down now, focus it more, increase the value, create more specific news moments, and ... most importantly, measure it. As I said before, create an oasis of clarity instead.
(Mind you, you can't measure this with page views. This is about news usefulness.)
It might seem insane for me to even suggest that we need to reduce our volume at a time like this. But trust me, we are already seeing the signs of the news fatigue problem. We are losing our ability to impact the public if we don't.
Finally, I have one more thing to mention in relation to our readers' mental health:
Many of my friends in journalism believe that it's vital that the public gets to see all the really scary pictures from Ukraine as a way for the public to understand what is really happening.
And... don't get me wrong ... I agree. It is very important. However, what is also very important is how we do it. We need to prepare the public for it, and not just spring it on them when they least expect it.
I think Aram Zucker-Scharff over at the Washington Post put it well when he tweeted:
Hey... You don't have to look at photos of dead or dying people to "witness" a conflict if you can't handle it right now. You can read, and understand what's going on, and work up to the much more psychologically difficult work of viewing pictures until whenever you can.
It's frustrating when photos of the dead are in our feeds, in social share cards, or at the top of stories. People remember photos of historical mass deaths b/c they made an impact, but remember that historical texts and museums do a lot of work to prepare you with context.
News outlets that are putting photos of dead bodies at the top of stories and in share cards that show them unexpectedly in social feeds are not providing that context at that moment and what they're doing is fundamentally irresponsible.
We can and should witness horrors of the present to assure they do not happen again, but shock jock-style photo use, where it is shoved in front of you like 'surprise, look at this' is not that. There are many ways to witness, photos aren't even the most effective. Take time.
I completely agree with this. News should be something we choose to spend time on to get informed. Not something that sneaks up behind you with the worst images possible when you least expect it.
So, think about all of this. Don't add to the noise; create a noticeable difference in consumption; be mindful of people's mental health, and don't undermine our future by burning people out on the news.
If we do all that, we will have something much more valuable.
Don't forget to check out the Plus article I mentioned in the beginning:
Also, I wrote about how publishers need to think about publishing in:
Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).
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