If you don’t know your audience, reporting news won’t be an easy task. Ask any journalist—a story needs to resonate with readers in order to be read, shared and engaged with. In turn, the outlet reporting the story must appear trustworthy enough to win the reader’s attention in the first place. Journalists and media organizations carefully build their reputations on a foundation of fairness and reputation for this reason.
Of course, when a story is particularly sensational, readers’ high levels of interest can allow the outlet to override traditional scrutiny about fact-checking and bias. And when nearly every headline produced by an outlet is more sensational than the last, readers find themselves swimming in a media landscape filled with overly sensationalized or even purely fake news. This questionable content is evident in sponsored links on partner sites; the New Yorker restricts the placement of such “content” to only its humor section because the stories have become so ludicrous, tempting readers with items about the Rock’s death, or grossly disfigured plastic surgery accidents. Most of this content looks like something straight out of The Onion or worse.
As users shift their reliance on trusted content brands to aggregators and social networks, and “clickbait” businesses have become profitable empires aided by pay-for-play content distribution networks, journalists and organizations alike are looking for ways to combat fake news and remain relevant in an evolving trade. Below are insights for journalists and media brands looking to connect with their audiences and outperform the noise created by sensationalized online content.
Fake content's sensational nature (and monetary motivation) should come as no surprise
It’s no surprise why fake news performs so well, as it’s engineered to appeal to target audiences. Consider the business model used by “clickbait” ad networks, or the organizations responsible for those “around the web” links that frame online content with headlines about your favorite celebrity mysteriously dying, or one weird trick that’s helping people lose 50 pounds at a time. Such networks operate with a business model that helps circulate traffic within the host’s site, while also making money from clicks leading to related off-site content.
As initial competition rose between the networks (and individual links), the quality of the content became more sensational as the content providers competed for clicks. The content networks were happy to have this competition take place, and without proper editorial policies, allowed fake news to flourish. Google and Facebook have not been immune to this either, with the behavior of fake news in terms of attracting clicks and user attention feeding the relevancy algorithms which in turn drove more visibility for fake articles.
Facebook specifically came under fire for the spread of fake news on its platform in weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, with BuzzFeed reporting that in the campaign’s final three months, top-performing fake election news generated more engagement than top stories from mainstream news outlets. During that time period, the network also reported that teenagers in Macedonia were reportedly creating fake news as an “easy way to make money.” For publishers, journalists and other media gatekeepers attempting to increase trust among readers, it’s becoming critical to show that all reporting comes from an unbiased source free of corporate ties and financial motivation, or even pure deception.
In response to scrutiny about his company’s alleged influence on presidential campaign news, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently outlined a plan for identifying and stopping the spread of fake news within the social network. While his commitment to the effort has received a generally positive response, some critics, such as Fortune senior editor Geoff Colvin, deem the effort impossible due to its sheer size. Google has also been criticized for its platform enabling news stories to gain prominence in search results before they’re editorially vetted.
Trusted brands and publishers have unwittingly contributed to the problem
The most dangerous problem with fake news is its ability to undermine trustworthy sources. Today, with a wide spectrum of resources available about every topic imaginable, readers are shaken by the idea that something they’re reading might not be true. As a result, the same scrutiny applied to a fringe outlet is directed back to the media sphere’s mainstay brands – in turn, driving readers back to fringe outlets. Media brands and professionals navigating this climate should remember that cheap tricks and fake content can only be disproven by readers’ trust, which grows from a brand’s ability to provide accurate reporting, content personalized for the reader, and an unbiased view of every topic covered.
Mixing high-quality news content within close proximity of questionable sources makes it impossible for users to trust any of the content, and therefore have even less reason to visit established brands vs any other source of content. As made clear during usability sessions with real users, publishers almost always overestimate readers’ understanding of what they are looking at in terms of navigation, sources, and brand.
Can personalization provide the answer?
As an alternative, focusing on leveraging high-quality content and ensuring relevant stories and videos are presented to users at all times increases trust and user satisfaction and strengthens brand loyalty. Users have grown to expect that their primary content sources are getting smarter about their interests. Whether it’s Netflix, Amazon, or other leading digital businesses, understanding users and applying behavioral profiles to deliver the right content to the right user improves the experience and drives loyalty.
Brand association really matters, and ensuring users understand the difference between content that has been properly researched, written, and vetted and content that serves as pure humor or entertainment is vital. Publishers need to make this a stark separation to re-establish trust with the mainstream digital media.
The article was originally published on Bulldog Reporter.