In the turmoil that has been 2020, very few things proliferated as fake news. Quality standards and facts took a serious hit, largely driven by an onslaught of social media sources.
In fact, social media has become a common way people, especially the younger generation, get their intake of news – including those of a particularly divisive nature such as politics. We’ve come to a point where we also need an inoculation for the spread of disinformation and downright misleading content.
While the world is working on both vaccines, I’m happy to report that the publishing industry has shown remarkable resilience to this online pest. Quality publishers have learned how to deal with it, and I’ll try to dissect key factors that lead to this renaissance of sorts amid the fake news plague.
Trust as a foundation
Arguably the first key thing several publishers recognized was the matter of users trusting the information provided. By default, there is a huge difference between trained journalists and media professionals committed to certain standards on one side and social media posts, WhatsApp groups, and the like on the other. But, as we’ve witnessed so far – that distinction doesn’t necessarily translate to an advantage in the eyes of users.
There’s something called iterative journalism where stories are produced based solely on the journalist’s assumptions, which in turn are based on unverified claims. It has a ‘publish first, verify later’ approach where content is published as it’s reported, in pieces and with only basic facts. As such, it’s a form of media manipulation/exploitation in order to get a specific message out in the world.
So, publishers primarily focused on news and investigative journalism extended their efforts with more fact-checking (some created their own fact-checking units) and leveraging resources like PolitiFact and Media Bias/FactCheck. Even Facebook and Twitter, where a significant portion of fake news resides, have introduced fact-checking labels to mark misleading content flagged by users. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times asked for valuable feedback from their audiences on their coverage and direction, strengthening existing relationships in the process.
One particular segment of publishers rose to the very top of prominence: local news outlets. Driven by COVID-19, local publications saw huge increases in traffic with audiences seeking a better understanding of the local implications of the global crisis.
Reuters’ amazing research on how local and regional newspapers around Europe have adapted to remain sustainable shows a shift from prioritizing reach and views to focusing on loyal readers. These outlets are now producing content that specific segments of the audience want, thus improving reader frequency and developing long-lasting relationships. In the United States, 61% of Americans said they were following news about the coronavirus outbreak at both the national and local level equally, while 46% named local news outlets as a major source for COVID-19 news.
All in all, local news persisted in the face of fake news and social media by maintaining high quality standards and delivering accurate and credible local information that dug deeper into local issues than the information provided by regional and global publications.
The boost in local news consumption may certainly be interpreted as an immediate reaction of readership to the crisis. We’ll have to wait out and see if the numbers will drop down to previous, pre-pandemic levels. However, with more people likely to continue working from home post-pandemic, I believe interest in the local publications will remain high and become even more important.
The vital role of user experience
Tidying the editorial content with fact-checking and improved quality standards, particularly for news publications, was just one side of the coin. I find that the user experience itself, the way you interact with the site when you consume information, has played a big role in producing and reinforcing the value of local news. Various efforts to distinguish value-added content from fake news led to new newsroom roles and routines, as well as content creation and distribution strategies.
People like consistency and an experience they can rely on each and every time. It’s a simple flow:
a better UX (and content) -> more users -> more time spent on the website -> publishers get stronger.
In that regard, audio content has had a helping hand in creating a great user experience for publishers looking to stay afloat amid all the uncertainty.
For example, one of the largest US publishers McClatchy integrated an audio solution (by yours truly) that converts written content into audio to all of its 33 newsrooms. The text-to-speech service was tested on two local news sites just before the pandemic went into full force, with significant positive customer feedback. The results from The Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer showed an increase in user engagement: a 168% increase in time spent on the news site, an 89% increase in story page views, and a 95% increase in visits per user.
A major text to speech feature is the ability to deliver a listening experience specifically tailored to news-oriented content. The synthesized voice is specially designed to simulate a news anchor, highlighting particular syllables and emphasizing certain words in proper tone and inflection.
When the challenge is to find ways to improve user experience, opportunities like audio are very rare. Audio helps form a new media habit (because it’s easy to listen to content whenever and wherever) and instill loyalty. The disruptions in routines and habits actually helped grow the intake of audio content, simultaneously affecting where most listening is happening – at home. As more people shift to working at home, such a trend is expected to continue.
As technology develops, there will be more opportunities to distribute and monetize all sorts of audio content, based on the fact that readers consume more audio and more frequently than ever before. Perhaps what the world’s largest social network is aiming for will paint you a better picture than I am doing at the moment. Facebook is working on TL;DR, a virtual assistant to digest, summarize, and read out loud articles for users who want to skip reading it themselves. It’s yet another confirmation that people prefer to hear content so audio is one of the answers going forward, even as a format for quick factual responses.
Not everything is so rosy
It would be stupid of me to put the entire blame for fake news exclusively on social media. I’m aware that a huge chunk of it begins within certain publications. However, I’m not about to condemn an entire industry that largely adheres to regulations and quality standards. After all, research shows that fake news is a negligible fraction of the U.S. population’s daily information diet, comprising only 0.15% of it. It occupies less than 1% of overall news consumption.
However, here’s the thing: fake news has a far stronger impact compared with regular news, and there are more layers to the impact too. We must also account for the fact that the scale of fake news on social media is larger, around 10% (depending on how broad your definition of fake news is). So despite being a small fraction of news that people consume, it has a far greater impact due to its shocking and attention-grabbing nature.
Interestingly, the lack of trust is what spreads fake news. One research has shown that people who lack trust in conventional media and in one another post misinformation more often. So, only those publishers that go the extra mile in their effort are likely to gain trust through quality standards, fact-checking, and better user experience.
One thing is clear: content with little to no factual basis is not going away. If anything, the concept of fake news with the intention to shock audiences and increase visibility has increased in 2020. It’s up to publishers to step up their game and not get drowned out.
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