Fact or Fiction: Are news reporters straying from the ethics and standards of journalism?

Long gone are the days where people stay up to date with worldly events solely from an evening newscast or a local paper.

A survey from the Canadian Journalism Foundation suggests 60 per cent of respondents get their news online. That’s not hard to imagine if you use platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or Snapchat — where you can easily stumble on real (and fake) news during your daily dose of scrolling.

But busy lives and shorter attention spans call for more compact news.

“I think anytime you have to compact complicated topics to fit within a particular time period, you have to leave out sometimes very crucial information,” said Kyle Wong, co-founder and CEO of Pixlee, a user-generated content and influencer marketing platform.

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The rise of new media did not just mean journalists had to move to new platforms. They’ve also had to get creative in marketing their stories on those platforms to reach their target audience.

Think: call-to-action headlines, little snippets to tease a story, pictures and animated videos with subtitles.

After all, if you no longer have millions of families huddled around the television or radio every evening — how else will you draw the public in and make sure they stay informed?

In comes the effect of social media and online web pages.  Many news organizations now track, and depend on, web traffic and clicks to generate revenue and to make sure they’re reaching a wider audience.

Does that mean they’re resorting to questionable practices, like uninformative, vague headlines or click-bait, to rope readers in?

A large demographic certainly might think so, given that 49 per cent of Canadians think that journalists are purposefully trying to mislead them.

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“It’s an old debate on a newer platform,” said Nicole Blanchett, associate professor at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, and an expert in the changing boundaries and definitions in journalism.

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“I was studying some stuff about television, going back into the ’70s and ’80s… a lot of what is being described as digital journalism [today] is things that were being said back then. That it’s all about sensationalism.”

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Blanchett says the availability of time and money — or lack thereof — puts a lot of newsrooms in difficult situations of having to produce more content quickly, and mine for ways to attract readers. But she says it’s difficult to lump all news organizations into one, and to assume that many of them are suddenly abandoning their standards and resorting to frowned-upon practices like click-bait (though the true meaning of that term is contested.)

Using traffic data and analytics isn’t alarming to Blanchett. In fact, she says it’s a tool that helps news organizations understand what kind of content engages their audiences, and when and how they lose interest.

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The president of the Canadian Association of Journalists agrees.

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“What are people looking for? Why do they come to you?” asks Brent Jolly. “Is it investigations that draw people in? Do people come for the opinion section because you have interesting opinion writers [and] various takes on things?”

“I think that [information] is a good way to help you make data-informed decisions not data-controlled decisions,” says Jolly.

However, Jolly says — depending on the type of news or media organization — too much reliance on these technologies “definitely has a bearing.”

Could you imagine what would happen if journalists only produced the content that garnered the most views?

“There’s research that shows that you only base your choices on what an audience will want, and what an audience sees… some form of echo chamber or circles will form, and people will not be shown other types of content,” said Alexdandre Gravel, co-president of Toast Studio, a content marketing agency.

“It could be even more dangerous if journalists stop covering some subject matters because people don’t really seem to engage with them… it doesn’t mean people don’t need to know about [them].”

Numerous examples of literature have named confirmation bias as one of the reasons behind the polarization of individuals on social media, and sufficient grounds to call for unbiased, objective news reporting to be accessible to everyone.

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But Gravel says even if generating revenue by clicks may be tempting for a news organization, it’s not going to work for very long.

“What is shown on social media or the newsfeed needs to reflect what’s behind the click. That promise is very important,” said Gravel.

“The trust that is built between the audience and the news organization is very similar to the trust that is built between a parent and a child. It is built over time, and lost within five seconds.”

“That is also what can happen to news organizations, when that promise is broken — when there’s too many ads or the article is not as hot or hyped as what social distribution might have shown.”

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An influx of one-time visitors does not mean an increase in long-term, good quality readers, according to Wong.

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The experts also say some readers may confuse news coverage of lifestyle stories as just an attempt to fish for revenue. Do people really need to know about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s divorce? Who cares if the dress is actually blue and black or white and gold? Is this really where news is headed?

But Blanchett says this was something that was always at the core of journalism — covering both stories that hold societal impact and societal interest.

“That’s all part of the news process,” said Blanchett.

“There has to be a certain level of transparency in a sense that not every single story a news organization does might be an award-winning investigative piece… that sometimes you are doing a story because you know that it might have a ‘feel good’ element to it or that your audience is going to be interested in it for a number of other reasons.”

Blanchett, Wong, Jolly and Gravel all agree that it’s hard to say whether the news really is blurring the line between fact or fiction to draw readers in.

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They say this strongly depends on what kind of morals and values the organization stands for, and what its ultimate goal is. Is it a content farm? Or a local current affairs paper? The ability of an organization to stick to its core values affects what kind of videos, pictures and headlines are produced.

But Wong says the pressure to perform is real, because the rise of user-generated content platforms means a need for more content, all the time, from everyone.

Still, there are ways journalists can use web traffic to their advantage, without getting lost in the sauce.

Blanchett says that means sticking to core values such as fact-checking, prioritizing accuracy of information over speed of dissemination, and engaging with your audience to find out why they choose to get the news from you.

It also means, according to Wong, finding other ways to generate revenue, rather than just relying on clicks and user engagement. Once you find a strategy, be patient. Results may come in months later.

And if we’re really going back to examine the basics, Jolly says since the tools that journalists use have evolved, the journalism standards need to be reexamined and brought up to speed.

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“I always think it’s important to continually have standards evolving. You know, journalism is not a monolith.”

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