I recently realized something critical about how the internet works today.
The assumptions readers make about the information they find online — even at relatively “reputable” sites — are wrong. The internet is redefining what “journalism” means. As a result, it’s become even more critical for online information consumers (you and me) to take on a burden we haven’t had to concern ourselves with until now.
The burden of confirmation.
I’ve written about it before, but the sad fact is, you just can’t believe everything you read on the internet. It is now your responsibility to do the legwork and confirm whether something is or is not true.
Yes, I agree: it’s totally broken.
It’s partly our fault.
What drives the internet
Most websites on the internet measure traffic. More visitors equals more success. It’s as simple as that. Whether the success is measured in advertising revenue or product sales, the bottom line is, more eyeballs are critical to online success.
This is also true for Ask Leo! More visitors make my endeavor more successful.
So, how does one get traffic?
My approach has been relatively straightforward: write articles I think are helpful and informative, answer real questions asked by real people, sprinkle them with my own editorial and other content, and hope that people discover me via the search engines when they’re looking for an answer to a problem.
Unfortunately, that approach isn’t as effective as it once was. Perhaps as a result, more and more sites use different techniques to attract site visitors and their clicks.
Perhaps the most common approach to generating traffic these days is the sensational or salacious headline — one that says something so strong or outrageous you just have to click through to read more.
The resulting article may or may not deliver on the headline’s promise, but the headline served its purpose: it got you to click, the site got a “page view,” and perhaps an ad was seen. Mission accomplished. The fact that the accompanying article was total rubbish or content-free is immaterial.
The title to this post might be considered such a “clickable” headline, although I think it’s fairly mild in comparison to many I’ve seen. I hope you find the content of this (and all) Ask Leo! articles valuable and worth your time.
Many continue with provocative and/or unsubstantiated information, all to get you to spend more time on the site, click through to additional pages, or, even better, share the article with your friends.
All this effort is often at the expense of what we refer to as truth, accuracy, or balance.
The truth is often less than exciting and doesn’t generate page views.
When it comes to the news, however, there’s another factor at play.
News in internet time
Because the internet is instantaneous, there’s tremendous competitive pressure to get articles published as quickly as technologically possible.
This often happens at the expense of facts, replacing them with rampant speculation — speculation that is often presented or interpreted as fact.
Confirming facts takes time and resources. The immediacy of internet publishing has removed the luxury of time and budget; other constraints erode the resources required to even do the work.
Websites that cover current events are faced with a simple choice:
- Speculate today
- Be correct tomorrow
Getting something out today almost always wins — accuracy be damned.
How you and I are part of the problem
The satirical news parody site The Onion nailed it with this article: Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story this Morning.
The article is a fictitious “explanation” of why a major news site highlighted the antics of the singer at the previous night’s music awards show on its homepage.
The only thing fictitious about the article is its attribution. Everything else is frighteningly accurate.
It’s all about clicks and page views and time-on-site and advertising revenue and … well, you get the idea.
The fact is, you and I are much more likely to click stories about the outrageous antics of a pop singer than we are to click stories about what one might consider “real news,” such as atrocities happening elsewhere in the world.
News sites give us what we want, as measured in clicks.
The same is true for the salacious headlines, fact-free articles, and sensational speculation-as-truth littered all over the internet.
We don’t click on boring, and we don’t fact check anything.
I have no solution, but…
I’m not about to change journalism or human nature.
We’ll click on what we’re going to click on, and website owners are going to respond as they see fit for their business.
As an information consumer, however, I want you to be aware of two important things:
Your decisions and actions drive the internet. You may believe that it’s big (or small) business doing whatever they want to make money, but the fact is, they can’t do that without you. The more you visit certain sites, the more you implicitly endorse what they do and how they do it. As a result, they’re going to do it more.
Seriously. That’s exactly how it works.
When you reflexively hit the “share” button and spread unconfirmed “news” to the world, or even just click on that innocuous “Like”, you are actively participating in and rewarding the system that is breaking the internet. You’re making things worse.
You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. This pains me deeply, because while almost everyone says this, it seems no one acts like they understand it. It’s absolutely amazing the wild and wacky stuff that people believe because it’s published online. The fact is, even those sites we consider reputable fall into the trap of publishing inaccurate and misleading information — and yet people believe it all without question.
And that’s what has to change.
You must question everything
This is where I really believe that internet journalism is letting us down. This is how the internet has broken journalism.
You and I now have do the legwork that we used to assume journalists and authors had at least made an attempt to do themselves.
It’s horrible. It’s awful. It’s frustrating. It shouldn’t be this way.
And yet, it is what it is.
You and I must (and I do mean must) take everything we read online with a grain of salt. Nothing can be believed without question.
Now, you and I must confirm the truth, check sources, clarify statements, and see through hyperbole.
Of course, the practical reality is that we can’t do that for every single thing we encounter. As a result, we develop relationships with sources that we trust — venues that have proven themselves to be honest, accurate, and at least somewhat diligent about presenting truth as truth, speculation as speculation, and avoiding the temptation to do just about anything for a page view.
Naturally, I hope Ask Leo! is one of those sites.
But even for those sites that you trust, you must keep up your guard and do your own due diligence. Accidentally or not, it’s easy to get it wrong.
And if I ever start posting about the antics of half-naked pop stars, slap me. Hard.
Originally published as How the Internet Is Breaking Journalism (and What It Means to You) on Ask Leo!
Leo Notenboom has been programming computers since 1976, and answering questions about them online since 2003. For more, see askleo.com.