Breaking out of the ‘echo chamber’ — it starts in the newsrooms

Most of us awoke on that fateful Wednesday in early November to a feeling of extreme emotion, be that joy, confusion, anger, disbelief or that indefinable sinking feeling that suggests the world we know is rapidly coming to an end. Immediately following that, many of us took to our social media feeds, either to publicly make those emotions known or to have them celebrated or consoled by people expressing them on our behalf. Very quickly we discovered that Facebook was to blame, and so off we all went on a witch hunt, beating on the doors of 1 Hacker Way, demanding Zuckerberg’s appearance on the ducking stool.

“In the search for the big clicks, have our journalists become opinionated columnists rather than fact-hunting reporters?”

While Facebook certainly has a reasonable amount to answer for, in many ways they’ve become a distraction to a bigger issue. The ‘echo chamber’ that many observers have been commenting on does not start and end on the walls of our news feeds, but reverberates right back into the newsrooms of the newspapers to which many of us have been loyal for so much of our lives.

It’s a story that has as much to do with the way in which newsrooms function — the tech on which they rely to reaffirm what they are doing — as it has to do with the political bias they’ve traditionally followed.

Defining the echo chamber

As the name suggests, the concept of ‘the echo chamber’ has to do with the problem of ‘confirmation bias’, a term that found its way into public parlance towards the end of the recent election. Again, it could often be found in reasonably close proximity to the words ‘Facebook algorithm’, suggesting that people were only seeing news items that the social media platform thought they’d be interested in based on what their social circles had liked. But the ‘echo’ had to start somewhere. Someone had to utter the statements that reverberated in the first place, and it certainly wasn’t Zuckerberg.

To find the source of the sound, you only had to head for the newsrooms, where journalists — no matter the side of the political spectrum they favored — have always written for audiences. Some big-name journalists are synonymous with certain big name publications — they’re like the star players on a football team; the names that put asses on seats — and they have been part of many people’s morning commute for years. In this sense, the echo chamber has been fully operational ever since newspapers began rolling off the presses. People lap up their opinions and quote them around the office water coolers. The papers sell more copies and the star journos are encouraged to rinse and repeat.

Bring all of that into the 21st century and the concept hasn’t changed, it’s just that the echo chamber is now global in size, a heck of a lot louder, and the loop happens over a much smaller time frame. A writer pumps out an article, the article finds its way out across myriad instantaneous distribution channels, and very quickly the screens above the newsrooms start feeding back realtime information on how well the article is performing. And so the editorial team is told to start prepping umpteen more stories on precisely the same subject in an attempt to milk the clicks for all they’re worth. (If you’ve never spent time in the newsroom of a large publication and you’re wondering how many articles they’re expected to put out these days, take a look at The Guardian’s list of pieces tagged ‘Donald Trump. At the time of writing — 6pm on a Friday — they’d managed 33 in a day, not including the continuous 24-hour live feed coverage given over exclusively to the president-elect.)

In such a way we find ourselves in a situation where vast readerships are caught in a repetitive loop of endless encouragement and agreement. The same readers keep coming back for the same opinion, so the writers provide more of the same, all the while watching the metrics on the big screen confirm that they’re apparently doing something very right.

Why the metrics are misleading

Many of the analytics packages used by the big media companies focus on positive response. They are optimized to show success, commonly in realtime, and so contribute to the echo chamber by encouraging confirmation bias within the newsroom. By concentrating on realtime single metrics that massage the egos of writers and advertisers alike, they are putting the emphasis (once again) on chasing the clicks. More of the same, and faster becomes the battle cry, rather than the more traditional (and, frankly, more desirable) emphasis on consideration, quality and reason.

“If journalism is a service, are journalists fulfilling their end of the bargain?”

And so liberal newsrooms up and down the East Coast continued to follow their usual agenda. “Deride Trump as a small-handed bigot,” they reasoned, “and we hit the jackpot. The clicks ring all the right bells and the machine pays out.” And the story bounced around the echo chamber, day in, day out. Trump as a climate change denier; Trump as a threat to social justice: check, check! But Trump as someone who appeals to those in the Rust Belt, and the issues in the Rust Belt that he has tuned into where others haven’t? Does it matter? Of course not, an editor might think, because no liberal reader would be interested in that, and look at how these metrics show how well we’re doing.

As the dust clears, an interesting question arises: in the search for the big clicks, have our journalists become opinionated columnists rather than fact-hunting reporters? And which would we rather have? If journalism is a service, are journalists fulfilling their end of the bargain?

So, where next?

Of course I’m aware that I’m writing this on the blog of an analytics company. Anyone who spends time here regularly knows we have something to sell. But it also means it’s our business to be aware of the effect our industry can have, and to sound the alarm if things look like they’ve gone awry. Would those newsrooms have been any better off if they’d used an analytics package like ours? We won’t ever know. The only thing we can say for sure is that Content Insights isn’t optimised to show the newsroom the pretty side of things. Writers who are mounting up the clicks with their latest diatribe can see just how much (or little) they’re actually being read, and how many of their shares are actually leading to genuine reads. If it rewards anything, it’s real connection rather than click-happy, knee-jerk reaction.

As always with us, it’s about attention. If the editors weren’t so enthralled to their advertisers and their vanity metrics, they might have noticed that the people were edging towards a different agenda. It’s possible that they’d have seen their genuine attention metrics take a tumble as their readers searched for answers rather than increasingly pumped up opinions.

Yes, I have to raise my hands and say that this is largely conjecture, but it has been fascinating to see how the John Oliver-endorsed Propublica has received significant financial support from the general public in the wake of the election. If there’s room for anything in the crowded media landscape at the moment it is considered, unbiased, unfettered reporting that looks to provide a genuine service before it thinks about servicing its paymasters. It’s time to look at what our readerships really want, rather than feeding the click machine.

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