What Happens When Truth in News Media Becomes Subjective?

I see a large part of journalism as we know it transforming into a web of syndicated journalists who rely on crowd-sourced efforts over the Internet.

This future could become a reality within the next ten years with the help of this guy (John Oliver), and it has its pros and cons.

This future could become a reality within the next ten years, and it has its pros and cons.

First, there will be syndicated journalism.

How journalism currently exists on the web is already stepping into this direction as, for example with The New York Times, web traffic to its home website is in decline while traffic to its articles on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks are rising. Less and less people are reading articles sourced entirely from The New York Times; they are finding articles that have been taken out from The New York Times’ hub in addition to articles from numerous other competitors.

Major print news journalism organizations like The New York Times have created a web presence, and they are now in the process of altering that presence from a hub into a distribution outlet. For example, Facebook distributes articles about North Korea’s nuclear testing from multiple news outlets, including The New York Times, to users based on their political leanings. It is unlikely for a reader of Breitbart to see a New York Times article in their feed. This distinction based on political leanings is important.

Where I see journalism heading with this distributing is toward a place where authors from major news organizations are mainstays on a reader’s phone on an individualized and premium basis. One reader primarily reads articles and listens to media by Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, and Christiane Amanpour while a different reader does so with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

All this media is “premium content” in that the readers pay a premium to the developers of the app for the content, and the developers pay for syndication rights from the respective news organizations.

The future of journalism lies in how effectively news organizations can individualize their content in this way.

Second, journalism will heavily rely on their audiences, on crowd-sourcing efforts.

In 2014, when Malaysia flight 370 disappeared on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, DigitalGlobe organized a massive crowdsourcing search of the airplane’s flight path. Eight million Internet users jumped on board to scan small segments of the 340,000 square kilometers of ocean that DigitalGlobe opened for the search, which resulted in the flagging of 18 million spots for review.

Computer algorithms analyzed these flagged spots, cutting it down to a smaller number for manual review by analysts. While not successful in finding the airplane, the fact that eight million people jumped on board to scan segments of the ocean is exciting for journalism.

What could journalists do with crowd-sourced efforts in the future? What kind of information can the masses generate in these types of efforts?

The power of crowd-sourcing is already beginning to happen.

When HBO show host John Oliver asked his audience to leave comments on the FCC’s website about net neutrality in May, 2017, people left nearly 200,000 comments. Calling on his audience to leave comments was not a haphazard idea; Oliver, as a journalist and comedian, informed his audience about a legitimate concern for democracy and then explained how his audience could do something about it.

One could also look at how the news segments of his shows are now shown in full on YouTube, and that those with YouTube Red subscriptions get access to the content faster than those without subscriptions. Oliver is a syndicated journalist who, in this example, relies on crowd-sourced efforts.

This “future” for journalism would be impossible without the Internet. And, while the Internet provides many benefits, there are also many concerns that come along with it.

Let’s look at these concerns with reference to the nine principles of journalism.

The first concern is about truth. Whose truth is right? The first principle is that journalism’s “first obligation is to the truth.” The American Press Associationexplains that citizens, inundated by the “flow of data” need “identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context.”

Truth, as journalism’s first obligation, is about distilling and presenting that information accurately in a context understandable by citizens.

In our age of the instantaneous, truth is a challenging task.

How do we ensure we are reporting the truth? What if we get it wrong because we do not have enough time to verify it? The repeated criticism by President Trump of the news media as “fake news” reminds us of the difficulty of this principle.

Further, in an age of filtered news, of syndicated news distributed to people based on political leanings, the notion of truth is muddied.

I mentioned earlier how syndicated journalism is individualized, and I did not mean this positively. The future appears to be heading toward further divisiveness with the individualization of content.

The key is that if two readers come to know disparate “truths” about a piece of news, and then as a result declare that the other is “fake news,” then that news as journalism is not living up to the nine principles.

Truth is of utmost importance, yes, but in locating it, it must “present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society” (second principle), “avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism” (fourth principle), and stop “inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative” (eighth principle) in the reporting of it.

The majority opinion of our journalism is that it fails to uphold these principles.

When asked in a 2016 Gallup poll, “How much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media… when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly…?” just 32-percent of those surveyed responded with “a great deal” and “a fair amount.” That percent is spread out by 51-percent Democrat, 14-percent Republican, and 30-percent Independent. What the results show is that our journalism is not perceived by the majority as accurate or fair.

Is the cause of this low confidence the result of widespread failure to uphold the principles of journalism, or of small highly-publicized incidents of failure? What is a failure, and which readers are notified of that failure?

In our individualized news streams, where “truth” can differ from another’s version of truth, we might only see one side of failure, of “fake news,” in the opposing truth. This one-sidedness threatens the future of journalism.

Truth is objective. When we step toward accepting a subjective truth in response to the one-sidedness of news presented on the Internet, we lose the fundamental power of journalism: to inform.

Even if journalists continue to aim to present a “representative picture” of their communities, remain neutral rather than elitist, and stay away from sensationalism — essentially upholding the principles of journalism — the notion of a subjective truth will undermine, will take away any voice that journalists can give to the masses.

The biggest concern regarding the future of journalism is that it is transforming into a web of syndicated journalism.

To move in a direction where journalism maintains its power to inform, news organizations must work to combat the divisiveness spawned by individualized content syndication.

Published by Evan Olson

Freelance video producer and writer, creative director of Dramatic Ads, and editor of CreatorCoffeeShop.com.

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