Corporations Are News Too: A Call for Responsibility in Gathering and Aggregating News

In the age of fake news and Citizens United we are posed with the question of corporate social responsibility in the gathering and aggregating of information. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mark Zuckerberg, and the like, insist their “platforms” are not media companies. But given the number of publications and news outlets that depend on Facebook to reach their audience and the growing number of people who turn to Google and Facebook as their direct line to news it is becoming an increasingly difficult argument to make.

On the one hand, I feel some pity for the dominant global superpowers that control the flow of information to and from people, businesses and governments. When Facebook admitted to using human editors to curate the trending topics we were outraged. How dare you, we cried. That is unethical! Lies and deceit! Yet, post election as the media looks for places to point figures they turn to the flood of fake news stories on the platform now run by algorithms.

Fake news is a problem, and it is directly tied to the hyper-partisan world we exist in, but it is also tied to digital escapism. The idea that our online activities are intended to relax or insulate us from a long day in a disappointing or sometimes hostile world. The problem here is, when the theater or TV were used for escape they were at designated times at the end of our day-to-day interactions. That is no longer the case. We can chose to stay in wonderland, impulsively checking for something to elicit emotion or simply pass the time.

And users of social media are not inherently media literate by the amount of time spent scrolling or the number of followers accumulated. In fact, I could make the argument that the constant skimming and sharing of bits of information online might actually serve to make a person less literate as they never get a full picture of the world, only fragments that serve to confuse or misdirect emotions and reasoning. Social media users function just as the soulless algorithms that scan and sort the topics they reblog, retweet, share or upvote. Media literacy goes beyond relative knowledge of how to use a website or app. It has to do with checking sources and thinking critically about all the information we’re given. But, in our great wisdom, we choose to trust the judgment of the same friend we had to talk down from drunk texting an ex to find and source news on foreign policy.

But what does this have to do with corporate social responsibility you ask? The answer is who will be responsible for bringing law and order to the World Wide Wild West. I’m not talking about censorship, I’m talking about accepting responsibility for the information we distribute.

As a communications scholar I spend a lot of time telling people words and images matter. As a journalism instructor I spend even more time explaining the ethical standards by which the press measures itself. Journalism is an unregulated industry. The first amendment protects news outlets from heavy regulation by the government. However, as a profession journalists set aside ethical codes to keep in line with the original civic goals of a free press — an informed electorate.

If Google and Facebook want to play at the news game, as they’ve been doing, it’s time to commit to the same ethical standards the press uses: seek truth, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable/transparent. That would be the socially responsible thing to do. But the calls of “you’re biased” often lobbed at journalists can send shivers down the spin of anyone looking to make the most money from the most people possible. However, that is often a side effect of truth telling. People don’t always like what you say, especially if it causes that icky feeling of doubt or worse the vulnerable feeling of being lied to by a trusted brand, celebrity or politician.

There are two fixes to the fake news problem. One is the instating of required media literacy classes, k-12, in every public school. Because if we are going to rely on citizen journalists, they should at least have access to the same knowledge and skills as the students in our top journalism schools. But, given the current political climate — a president elect that is openly hostile to the press and a future secretary of education that has threatened to cut funding to programs that get “too political” — I think universal media literacy is a long shot. The second would be to pressure the corporations that irresponsibility perpetuate fake news to develop stop-gaps to weed-out unreliable sources. Perhaps hire the thousands of out of work journalists that were cut from newsrooms as people turned to Google and Facebook to find free news over paying for the local papers and newscasts. Maybe develop an algorithm that is able to fact-check or, at the very least, flag the source of an article tracing the information backward through aggregator after aggregator to the original price, reported and edited by humans.

Something has to be done, because framing your media company as anything but a news source for millions of Americans is only working against democracy.

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