In the Click-bait Era, what happens to freedom of the press?

The 2016 presidential election created a fascinating conundrum: What should news outlets do when massive popular sentiment favors anti-democratic restrictions on freedom of the press?

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, candidates and supporters on each side used the media as a punching bag. President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters accused main stream media professionals of a liberal bias in their coverage. The Hillary Clinton camp complained that Trump received disproportionate coverage, legitimizing what they felt was an absurd candidacy.

Both sides have valid points, but the issue of media bias is much more complicated when you dig beneath the surface.

Here are a few things to consider about what’s news-worthy:

What motivates reporters?

The US media is not one unified body. It comprises thousands of traditional and non-traditional entities that disperse their coverage on hundreds of platforms.

Each media company has its own mission and motives, just like any other business, but the one unifying motive is not politics, but profit.

Proliferating digital media has changed the way Americans consume news, forcing traditional media companies to find new revenue sources to remain in business. Earlier this year, Pew Research found that just 20 percent of Americans get their news from print newspapers, and that number is largely made up of individuals 65 and older. While broadcast and print media depended on ratings and circulation to attract advertisers, many companies must now produce content that gets clicks, views and social media shares to produce digital advertising revenue.

The emergence of click-bait

Click bait is a digital-content style characterized by sensationalized or misleading headlines and images, and by content that lacks depth and substance. Listicles and “how to” articles fall into this bucket. This fluffy content is designed to attract high click volume and social shares, but it lacks journalistic sophistication and fails to meet the standards that healthy democracies expect of the Fourth Estate.

The public’s attention span is shorter than ever, and journalists must now think like marketers to succeed. Newsrooms encourage, and at times pressure, their staffs to plug their work on social media to attract as many views and shares as possible.

The law of supply and demand suggests that media consumers, not media professionals and their companies, create proliferating click bait. High demand for fluffy digital content forces these companies to balance that demand with their duty to serve as public watchdog.

Another result: The nation’s largest publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, see more revenue come from their digital platforms. Last quarter, WSJ digital made up 55 percent of its revenue. No wonder outlets reduce or abandon print.

Loud voices get more listeners

Social media and other technologies have democratized news distribution. And these technologies are powerful vehicles for political movements.

Unlikely events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump prove that grassroots movements empowered by social media are gaining ground across the globe.

WORKSHOP: Become your own media outlet and apply journalistic practices within your organization.

Like it or not, in the new media landscape the value of news is measured by popularity, and the loudest voices often win the most listeners. The [Pew?] article makes a salient point by saying that, by giving everyone a voice with unlimited reach, we have “opened our national dialogue to bullies, bigots and buffoons – on both sides of the aisle.”

Media coverage can be hostile

The same technologies and platforms traditional news organizations have adopted have allowed non-journalists to spread distrust of the traditional media. This has created massive public anger with the media, intensified by this year’s election. In February, Trump went beyond criticizing the media to threaten:

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

His proposal to censor the press drew roaring approval from the crowd. While no media company is perfect, this anger and hostility endangers democracy and the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Once the demand for excellent coverage comes back, newsrooms will deliver.

Brian Hart is the president of Flackable, a national financial PR and digital marketing agency. A version of this article first appeared on Flackable’s blog.

(Image by reynermedia, via)

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