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Framing Our Focus

News & Features | November 23, 2015

In 1787, Irish statesman Edmund Burke argued in front of the House of Commons that the press should be permitted to report during sessions. He argued: “there are Three Estates in Parliament;”—the clergy, the nobility, and the House of Commons—“but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate far more important than them all.”

Burke recognized the crucial role an independent press played in creating an informed electorate that could check the power of government and play an active role in society. With that crucial role comes a certain level of responsibility—the responsibility to determine for readers and viewers what information should be covered and to what extent.

It would have been hard for Burke to predict that in just over two centuries that responsibility would be shared by nearly every news-consuming member of the population.

Today’s equivalent of Burke’s “Reporters’ Gallery” is the vast and multifaceted world of modern media—every outlet from CNN to the New York Times to online zines. While there are now more sources of information than ever, there is also a new trend in digital news that is both empowering and dangerous: mass data collection and its influence on content.

Television news content has long been subject to the influence of viewer trends: The Nielsen ratings system allows network executives and stakeholders to see trends in viewer interest and make decisions for the news outlet based on that data. TV news is therefore often less respected for its sheer journalistic integrity and viewed as “entertainment news.”

However, as print news transitions to the web, it is becoming increasingly subject to the same kind of data capabilities and, therefore, the same consequences. Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and former Washington Bureau Chief for CNN, says the amount of information regarding reader trends available to print media corporations has increased tremendously in the digital age.

The [Washington] Post and the [New York] Times can see online how many people view a certain story, how much time they’re spending on it, what the bounce rate is … they have just as many if not more metrics as TV and networks used to have,” Sesno told the Tufts Observer. “This is…new with online news. In the days when newspapers were printing papers, there was no way to tell how many people were reading a story on page eight vs. page twelve. You only knew what your circulation was.”

Now, print and online news outlets have the ability to know far more. News metrics detailing trends in readership and analytics on specific stories can give news organizations data on not only how many hits a story gets, but also how long the reader stays on the page. These metrics also show whether the reader clicked any embedded links to follow them through, and even what parts of the page the reader lingered on longest.

There are significant consequences to this developing relationship between the digital news media and the news-consuming public, not all of them negative. For instance, such technology has led to the pseudo-democratization of the editorial process, bringing the public’s input into the decision-making processes of producers and editors, and customizing the news cycle according to what the readers want. However, John Ciampa, director of the Tufts Film and Media Studies (FMS) program, believes this is more dangerous than liberating.

“To put that burden on the consumer is unreasonable,” Ciampa told the Tufts Observer. “There is some partnership between the consumers and the producers, but the onus should be on the producers to get out what’s important to the best of their ability, and not neglect that in lieu of what’s profitable or popular.”

In other words, news outlets must not replace their responsibility to judge the newsworthiness of a story with the data now available, turning the news cycle into a haphazard democratic process instead of a thoughtfully assembled collection of information.

“This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you don’t go to a doctor expecting to correctly diagnose yourself. That’s the doctor’s job as a professional,” Ciampa said. “In the same way, it is incumbent on journalists as the professionals to present a broad spectrum of information.”

Sesno, who still works for CNN and sometimes stands in for Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter, similarly argues that metrics can’t replace the professional judgment of editors and reporters: “There are two types of news outlets out there today: those that follow metrics and the popularity of stories that already exist, and those that lead their audiences to stories they think are important or relevant, rather then following a trend,” he said. “Generally speaking, idea magazines like Vanity Fair or The Atlantic take their roles more seriously and do more to lead the public in terms of trying to set the agenda. Cable television follows the public. So, if a big story happens and they see big numbers on it they will ratchet up their coverage on it almost in real time.” Sesno added that papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would probably be “somewhere in between.”

A campaign to reform the type of metrics used in gathering news data has gained traction. The Associated Press-sponsored data collection site, www.metricsfornews.com, argues on its homepage that while it is crucial for data to be used in determining news content, “Publishers can’t really quantify the nature of the content they produce or how the audience engages with it.” Thus they have designed a strategy for metrics called “News Analytics,” as opposed to the standard web analytics used by advertisers to target consumers online based on interest.

Many strongly support the use of these metrics in determining what content to run, such as Andrea Iannuzzi—the editor of Italian newspaper l’Agenzia Giornali Locali, who, in his 2014 speech at the International Journalism Festival advocating for their wider use, compared the use of news analytics to “turning on a light.”

But if the reading patterns of news consumers drive content, the public becomes responsible for the significant gaps in its own knowledge that have been created by the omission of varying topics and stories from mainstream media.

These gaps can skew a reader’s perspective on an issue or even on the state of world events. After all, if content is being driven by replicating stories that readers enjoy or value reading most, then those readers are far less likely to be exposed to stories that they may not necessarily enjoy or think about very often, such as the complex roots of poverty in America or the political corruption in Nigeria.

Gaps in international coverage have widened over the past few decades. According to a 2007 report conducted by Pew Research Center and the Columbia School of Journalism, the number of news organizations with foreign bureaus has decreased by over 50 percent.

“We’re a very parochial media, and there’s this assumption at the production level that Americans don’t care about these stories,” Sesno said. “The only reason civil war and conflict in Syria and Iraq is front page news unequivocally is because Americans are involved.”

When news content is determined on a majority rules basis, there is also a concern about gaps in coverage for the disenfranchised. Julie Dobrow, co-director of the Tufts FMS program, has seen this problem grow in recent years.

“There are large groups of people—racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation—who just routinely haven’t been covered by mainstream media,” Dobrow told the Observer. “So yeah, absolutely there have been huge gaps.”

Recently, this gap has been evident in the American news coverage of the terrorist attacks that occurred over the past few weeks. Based on sheer exposure, it would be safe to say most, if not all, of the readers of this article know about the attacks in Paris two Fridays ago that resulted in the deaths of 129 civilians. It is far less commonly known that there were also two coinciding bombings in Beirut the day before, in which 43 people were killed and 200 were injured. This story conflicts with the straightforward “us versus them” narrative that underpins the Paris attacks, in which a Western country was targeted by foreign extremists. Furthermore, because France is a Western power, this type of violence is seen as more shocking to the Western media outlets that covered the Paris attacks than the attacks in Beirut. This raised concern and outrage among many people who questioned the motives behind this erasure: “When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world,” wrote Lebanese doctor Elie Fares on his blog.

This example of uneven coverage is just one of many illustrating what Ciampa believes is the “most dangerous gap” created by the influence of news analytics on content.

“Is the news media reaching people who are disenfranchised or who just feel left out of the information loop? That’s a dangerous thing in a democracy,” he said. “You want news that’s relevant across all socio-economic divisions.”

There are also concerns that metrics will only feed the beast of a capital-driven, profit-model news media.

“Advertisers are also privy to all that information, so that in turn is going to dictate where they want to spend their money and how, which impacts the method of coverage for your given news organization,” Ciampa said. “I think there’s a cyclical thing happening where there’s a lot of influences coming back to the news room that it maybe didn’t have to deal with just a few short years ago.”

This flow of capital has been known to drive news organizations to act with their bottom-lines in mind rather than the needs of their audiences. When it comes to news organizations, the capitalist argument for the objective benefits of the profit model doesn’t hold up. Sheer demand for a particular type of story does not necessarily mean that news organizations should increase their supply and, in turn, decrease their output of content on less-desired stories. It was possible for news outlets to ignore this impetus when the only insight into reader’s interests was overheard conversations about the day’s news, but now that readership trends can be tracked so closely, competition between publications has intensified around this definitive data.

“When you have media that are not state-supported, like in this country, they have to get on the air, get on the web, get printed…there has to be some way of monetizing what they do,” Dobrow said. “I think that’s been a huge driver of what we do and don’t see.”

If these unseen factors are so important in determining the content of the day’s news, then it is highly possible that readers and viewers are always one click away from being less informed without even knowing it. The metrics system is effective in gathering sincere data specifically because its participants are not aware of their roles as participants.

However, according to Sesno, becoming an informed citizen isn’t a difficult task, and the responsibility shouldn’t lie solely with the journalists and news organizations themselves. News consumers should be more active in their involvement with the media.

“It’s nice to point fingers at the media sometimes, but the fact of the matter is that there is virtually no member of the public today who could not be completely and pretty easily and very well informed,” Sesno said. “Because everybody who has a computer or smart phone or whatever it is has access to the Guardian, the Economist, the Times of London, the NY Times, the LA Times, Chicago Tribune… there is so much information out there that to sit back and blame the media as a member of the news-consuming public is a complete cop-out.”

This surplus of information does not necessarily mean people are exposed to broader topics, however.

“There’s more information, but people actually tend to read what they usually would, just in higher volumes,” Dobrow said. “If there’s more available, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are diversifying.”

Despite their difference of opinion on the effects of an expanding news world, Sesno and Dobrow do agree on the best possible solution to the problem of gaps in coverage: education.

“Media literacy could be taught in high school, and should be taught in college as well for sure, in order to expose students to and teach them about about different sources of information so they can be better-informed citizens,” Sesno said.

Dobrow said that the Tufts FMS program strives to make media literacy a primary goal for all of classes under its banner, an indicator that misinformation and issue ignorance continue to be major problems for current college-age news consumers despite the increased number of news outlets.

She argues this is an incredibly important skill set to have if the rapidly changing media world continues down its current path of data-driven complexity. “In about 20 years…you’ll be seeing a news landscape that probably looks quite different than what it is today,” Ciampa agreed. “I think what you’ll see is that there will be more choice than ever. A lot of it will be good, and a lot of it will be so-so, and a whole lot of it will be bad.”

The responsibility lies in the hands of the news consumer to determine which is which—to recognize biases, avoid misinformation, cross check sources, and fill in the gaps.

At the end of the day, this issue is about those readers. It’s about treating the news like the crucial cornerstone of democracy that it is, not as a cursory time-killer in which to engage only while in the waiting room or on the toilet. The gaps in news coverage—both in its breadth and depth—are increasingly being created by the news consuming habits of the very people who complain so frequently about them: the public.

As CBS anchor Eric Sevareid said in his legendary 1977 farewell transmission, “In this time of dangerously passionate certainties…it is important to remember that ignorant and biased reporting has its counterpart in ignorant and biased reading and listening. We [reporters] do not speak into an intellectual or emotional void.”

If this is still true, it’s time for journalists and news consumers alike to start acting like it.