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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2019

Black hat and white hat publishers

I want to raise a very important topic, which is the ongoing problem of bad actors inside the media industry.

This is nothing new, but I was reminded about this again just a few days after the shooting/hate crime/terror attack in Germany.

We already know what happened. A person showed up outside a religious place and started shooting people, but also, as it happens these days, he live-streamed the whole thing ... in this case on Twitch.

Because of this, we in the media industry started talking about this. We pointed out this continual problem of live-streamed terrorists. We demanded that the social channels should do more to stop this. To not provide a platform for this type of exposure, and to live up to their responsibility to prevent things like this from creating copy-cat terrorists.

However, while we were having this debate, I noticed that several newspapers had started, like they always do, to cover this attack by including clips from the video, and clips from other video sources showing the same thing. Where they didn't include the video itself, many included screenshots of the video (which created the same result).

I got really angry when I saw this, because here we were discussing the problem with social media, while we in the press are also acting irresponsibly. While Twitch was taking down the video, we in the press were putting it up!

I mean... What the frak people?!?!?

What made me even more angry is that the newspapers who did this were the same ones that called for more regulation of the tech channels after the Christchurch attack, and they celebrated it when Australia started talking about putting tech CEOs in jail if they didn't remove the content fast enough.

These were some of the same publishers who just a few days ago published this content.

And mind you, it's not just about the video. There were also detailed accounts of the attacker's motivations and methods, and in previous cases we have seen publishers report what the attackers said in their manifestos.

The result is that our reporting in the press acts like a recipe for future attackers. The lack of situational awareness and responsibility in the media is shocking.

More than that. If tech companies should face jail for not taking this type of content down fast enough, give me one reason why newspaper editors should not now go to jail for actively putting it up?

This double-standard that exists in the media is embarrassing to watch. We need to take a really hard look at our own industry.

And you clearly see the effect of this. Pretty much every attack over the past 10 years has followed an extremely similar pattern, regardless of where in the world it happens. This is all copy-cat terrorism. We are not facing terrorist organizations anymore. We are facing weirdos who via the internet and media have read up on these attacks, in extraordinary detail, and now want to copy it.

I'm not saying that we in the media are solely responsible, but we are very much a part of this.

So we have started having this debate on Twitter, and while most people agree that publishers should stop doing this, some started rationalizing or trying to explain why it happened.

There were specifically two arguments that caught my attention.

The first was that all of this is only happening because people can live-stream the content on social channels in the first place. Thus implying that even if we report it in the press, we are not the ones creating the problem.

I can understand why people say that, and yes, there are some dark places on some corners of the internet. Places that I personally do not believe should be legal ... just as other types of crime-focused forums are illegal.

But the argument that we wouldn't do this if it wasn't for social media isn't really true.

Imagine for a second that social media had never been invented. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, Snapchat... all of these never was.

Then imagine that someone attacked a church while recording it on his mobile phone, after which he emailed the video and his manifesto to a list of 500 pre-selected newspapers around the world.

If this was how the video was distributed instead, my question to you is, would these 500 newspapers then not include clips from it in their articles? Would they refrain from mentioning anything about the manifesto?

We all know the answer to this, because we can see what many newspapers are doing today. If these newspapers had received the video by email rather than via social channels, I don't think it would have been reported in any other way. They would still have included clips from it.

So the argument that this is social media's responsibility doesn't work, nor does it absolve any responsibility that we have in the press.

The second argument that I heard was that: Yes, we did it in the press, but it's worse for the social channels because of their higher reach.

Again, I can understand why people say this, but also, again, it's not true.

Take the video from the last attack. It was uploaded on Twitch. During the actual attack, only five people watched it live, and another 2,000 people watched it 'on demand' for the half hour afterwards, until someone finally flagged it and Twitch immediately took it down.

So, 2,005 people saw it on Twitch. Meanwhile, in the press, the way we cover terror attacks creates almost total reach to everyone. Far more than 2,005 people saw the clips or screenshots in the newspapers.

More than that, the way people see something online is very different from how they see it in the news.

Online, the way views are counted is extremely short. It's just people scrolling through their feeds, spending just a few seconds looking before moving on. And after that, the newsfeed updates, and you never see it again.

In the news, these stories are displayed on the front page all day, and they are very prominently featured. In other words, we are creating sustained and repeated exposure.

The result is that a view on social media means very little compared to a view in a newspaper. We have far more influence than Facebook.

In fact, if you go out and do a study, and you ask people: "Did you see a clip or screenshot from the attack?", and then you also ask: "Where did you see it?" ... I think the overwhelming response would be: "I saw it in the press".

The actual number of people who come across terror content on social channels is tiny compared to the overwhelming and total coverage that we provide in the media.

So I tweeted this:

Right now the tech channels are doing more to stop this than we do in the press.

For one thing, when Twitch realized what had happened, they didn't just remove the content, they issued a formal apology.

So I ask you this. How many newspapers have you seen who have issued a formal apology for publishing clips and screenshots of that video? How many journalists and editors were permanently suspended for allowing it to be posted?

This is a problem.

I'm not arguing that people should actually lose their jobs, but we do need to change this. The way we act in the media industry is completely unacceptable.

And mind you, this is not just about how we cover terror attacks. We see this problem across a very wide range of topics.

Let me just very quickly mention a few.

We have a problem with privacy. On one hand, the media argues that the tech world should change the way they act, but then inside the media industry we are actually worse. And on top of that, I see media executives who actually argue that they should be exempt from privacy legislation to be able to make money.

Then we have a problem with copyright. We argue that Google should not be allowed to link to us, while at the same time, every newspaper takes content from everyone else, and that we should be allowed to do that by being exempt from the very same copyright rules.

The damage from this alone is immense. While companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime TV, Apple, YouTube and Disney+ are all focusing on creating original content because they all know how important this is in the digital world, our practice of just taking content from everyone else prevents us from doing the same thing in the press.

You see this every time a newspaper publishes an exclusive report. Within seconds, everyone else has copied the information to their newspapers, and then we pretend we didn't steal it by saying that we "paraphrased it".

But these two things only hurt ourselves, what is much more worrying are all the things that hurt the public.

Let's start with something that the Reuters Institute tweeted the other day:

The media too often gave equal weight to opposing economic arguments around Brexit despite overwhelming evidence leaning one way says @JamesBlitz... much like it once did, says Suzanne Franks, around climate change.

We see this every single day. The media is so afraid of being seen as biased that they are willing to cause people to become misinformed about what the evidence really says.

Then we have the very common practice on TV (especially in the US, but not limited to that country) of putting pundits on air. Pundits that you know will lie.

Another example is misleading headlines that we see all the time. As a newspaper you will report something in the headline that isn't true. Here is one example, where the headline is a lie. They even point it out in the article.

I have said this a million times before. We know that the majority of readers just skim through the headlines and never read the full story. So Manchester Evening News just intentionally misled 1000s of people into thinking something that isn't true.

Also consider the whole Brexit thing, and how GDPR is imposed by the EU, and it is easy to see how this type of publishing can cause public damage.

Or what about this one (via Sally Rugg). Here is the headline:

And here is what it said in the article:

They just made it up!

Not only is this completely and totally irresponsible journalism, I would also categorize this as hate-journalism. Articles like these create transphobia ... which might even inspire a hate crime if the wrong person reads it.

Another example is when we just report what someone said without checking the data first. I came across this problem a few days ago here in Denmark.

The new Danish government apparently wants to be seen to be tough on crime. So, they want to introduce legislation to give the police the power to unilaterally put up surveillance wherever they like.

They have closed the open border between Sweden and Denmark (now requiring checks to pass), at great inconvenience to thousands of people every single day.

And this was followed by reports in the press, announcing all this, with interviews with politicians who said that crime was getting worse.

There is just one problem. According to the Danish National Bureau of Statistics, in Q2 of 2009 (10 years ago) there were 117,551 cases of crime being reported to the police. In Q2 2019 (today), there are only 82,688 cases.

That's a 30% decrease in crime.

But if you read the newspapers, you would never know. And now thousands of people will have their privacy violated and their travel massively inconvenienced. At the same time, the politicians are enjoying the results of their populistic agenda.

Then we have the outright journalistic scams. Like how newspapers that publish in multiple locations will write completely conflicting stories based on the same data.

We have seen this a lot, for instance, with some of the UK newspapers published in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This is a political scam, because instead of informing people, these stories are simply political propaganda disguised as news.

I could mention many more examples, and new ones come along every day.

The problem with all of these, however, is that there is a critical lack of responsibility in the media. Some newspapers are obviously worse than others, but many of these examples are things that we see across almost every newspaper in some form.

So the question is, what do we do about this? How do we fix this?

I was asked this on Twitter, and my answer was that, right now, it doesn't seem fixable. If we look at the media as a whole, I see no real change, or even a willingness to change. I see a lot of talking about it, but then as soon as the talk is over, they go right back to doing the same as before.

In fact, in several areas, things are getting worse. So I specifically said this:

I'm starting to think the only thing that will ever fix this is for the media industry to be regulated, but doing that opens up a whole load of other problems. But I do not think the media industry is ever capable of fixing itself.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want the media industry to be regulated, especially not in today's political climate. I mean, the worst I can imagine is for Boris Johnson or Trump to be able to regulate the press. That would just be a nightmare (for the press and for the public).

But my point remains, the media doesn't seem capable of living up to its own responsibilities and to hold itself to account. Almost every newspaper is doing one or more of the things mentioned before, and I see no remorse or shame after doing it.

In fact, I often see the opposite, where journalists and editors feel a kind of rush that their 'tactics' worked. I think this is why so many newspapers decided to publish clips or screenshots from the terror videos. They felt a rush being able to bring that information.

But this is also where the problem with lack of responsibility comes in.

I do however have one suggestion that would help. We need to do something that makes the bad forms of publishing result in a form of shame, and I'm reminded here of how the Search Engine Optimization industry (SEO) fixed many of their problems.

White hat publishers vs black hat publishers

This might seem like a strange thing to talk about, but the SEO industry used to have a lot of really big problems. Most of the industry engaged in some types of scams, cheating, deceptive practices, and so forth, and the same type of rush in the industry whenever they 'got away with it'.

The problem was that the brands often suffered from this. They would hire some SEO agency, which would do some deceptive type of link building. And initially the brand would score higher on Google and get more traffic.

But then a few months later there would be a backlash. These tactics caused a decline in brand value and for some brands, they would be delisted from search when Google discovered it.

This was obviously terrible, and something had to be done. The industry fixed this when everyone started talking about "White hat SEO vs Black hat SEO".

White hat SEO is what all good companies do. They don't use deceptive practices. They don't act in a way that might harm the brands. Instead, they limit themselves to only responsible optimization tactics.

Black hat SEO are all the scammers. The companies that you can't trust.

And today, this label has become an integrated part of the search industry. It defines the businesses, it sets limits and expectations and it defines trust. And as a result, the SEO industry is many times better today than ever before.

Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of bad SEO companies out there. You probably got a spam email from one of them just today. But we are labelling them as black hat exactly because of it.

This actually works. Brands can demand "White hat SEO", and it has cleaned up the industry.

I think we need to do the same in the media industry. We need to label publishers as either white hat publishers or black hat publishers depending on whether they do any of the things I mentioned above.

Another interesting thing about the SEO industry is that the "black hat label" comes into effect the second an agency does something bad. There is no threshold. They can't do 10 bad things and 90 good things, and still be white hat.

We need to adopt the same standard in the media industry, because today the lack of responsibility often extends to our labels.

Take the example of Newsguard. They labeled Fox News like this:

This label is here because they mostly do accountable things, but not always. And yes, sometimes their news reports are decent, but there are a lot that are not.

I like the concept of NewsGuard, but they are failing to achieve any meaningful result. A label like this doesn't work, because it allows the bad elements of journalism to continue. We are failing to keep ourselves to account!

This is why we need a zero tolerance label.

I think this is the only way we can ever fix this problem. We need this push to make it happen.

The SEO industry was able to do this to differentiate between the agencies you can trust and those you can't.

We can do the same!

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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