I Subscribed To Push Notifications From 12 News Outlets For 3 Months — Here’s What I Learned
News orgs need to more carefully consider their influence when sending updates
If you’ve been wondering what it’s like to consume news round-the-clock during this interesting time in American history, well, I am here to tell you it is exactly as stressful as it seems.
While it certainly was not the healthiest choice I’ve made for my sanity, or now lack thereof, in December 2016 I elected to subscribe to iPhone push notifications from 12 news outlets, all of which send snippets of information that generally cause tremendous pain.
A haphazard conversation with a friend was, for the most part, what prompted this absurd idea to torture myself. My friend had nonchalantly mentioned he solely relies on The New York Times updates for important news. To this I recalled the frenzy I entered by cause of the fragmented news alerts sent on the day of the most glaring media failure of 2016 — the “reopening” of the Hillary Clinton email probe that wasn’t. Had I only read those abstruse, speculative updates, or only updates from one outlet, I would have been woefully uninformed and unfortunately assume many were on that day.
This instance was not exclusive; it was rather a very potent example of the larger problems in the media. The influx of fake news, false equivalency, and media skepticism in 2016 displayed the scope of the challenges we face, but little has been done to ensure we progress in a well-informed, shared reality. Quickly following the election, it became clear most in the media would not introspect and would instead mercilessly defend their coverage. All the while, politicians have continued to confound feeling with fact on far-reaching platforms and the President of the United States has incessantly attacked the freedom of the press, whose role has arguably never been more important.
Thus, I took the plunge and subscribed to push notifications from eight additional outlets to the four I had already been using. In an effort to stress both the importance of consumers seeking more information than just a headline and the media using caution when sending out these updates, I have tracked every notification sent by these 12 outlets. I have assessed the timing, language, context provided, accuracy, and biased/unbiased manner in which they share information with their subscribers.
Below I will:
- Provide background info why this is even worth considering, both for consumers and media
- Specify the outlets assessed and why they were selected
- Perform case studies of the outlets’ responses to seven selected events
- Offer my view on each outlet’s performance
- Give my suggestion on how media can improve push notifications
Why We Should Care About Push Notifications
In an age of digital dominance, emerging wearables, and not-so-subtle attacks from POTUS, it is clear that while ethical standards in journalism persist, the news landscape and media responsibilities are rapidly changing. These responsibilities stretch across every delivery system — print, broadcast, social media, mobile apps, and push notifications. In comparison, push notifications may seem minute, but I’d argue the opposite and here’s why:
To state the obvious, our methods of gathering information have had a notable switch to the digital world. Newspapers’ web traffic outpaces their print circulation by a substantial margin — anywhere from two to 78 times more than average Sunday circulation, according to State of the News Media 2016.
Of greater significance, we have developed a generous reliance on mobile, with mobile traffic for news outlets outpacing desktop traffic by a margin of at least 10%. As of July 2016, seven-in-ten Americans (72%) get their news on their mobile devices, a significant jump from 54% in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. And, more than half (55%) of these smartphone users receive push notifications from news outlets on their screens.
Now, here’s the number that should really concern us:
Fifty-two percent of those who get news alerts do not click through to the full story or search for more information.
That equates to roughly 66.5 million Americans, based on U.S. population at the time of the Pew Research Center survey, who receive push notifications, but do not click through or search for any more information. To put that number in perspective, 66.5 million people is more than the population of: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming combined.
That statistic is simply alarming.
News bites can suffice at times, but updates and headlines are predominantly messages that lack context, are sensationalized, or are deliberately misleading. Ideally, to address these concerns, we would all seek out information from various credible sources and would have a comprehensive nationwide conversation about media literacy. However, as found in Nic Newman’s News Alerts and the Battle for the Lockscreen, many users already regard push notifications as ample information that delivers a considerable value.
Given this sentiment, media have an ethical responsibility to recognize the influence these updates have and to deliver them in a contextualized and unbiased manner. And, if acting out of concern for the public good is not persuasive enough, push updates are accompanied by significant business implications that media companies must consider.
Publishers see the combination of news apps and push notifications as a key channel for rebuilding direct relationships with users on mobile devices, as noted in News Alerts and the Battle for the Lockscreen. These notifications are increasing the regularity with which people return to their favorite news brand in the face of rising competition from social networks and other aggregators.
This is a good sign for the media. Consumers are considerably fond of receiving news through updates, which in turn can help media either weed out or become the competition if they utilize them appropriately.
Across markets, there is a strong sense that the language used in notifications needs to be factual, sober, and serious, providing a clear and accurate summary that reflects the nature of important ‘breaking’ news items that lies behind them. Clickbait or sensationalist headlines are widely viewed dismissively.
If outlets do not send updates that meet and maintain these criteria, they are less likely to earn and retain loyal users.
But, again, delivering on the responsibilities held by the Fourth Estate is frankly the right thing to do.
An informed democracy relies on an independent, investigative press and the checks they make on the government. As emphasized by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the operations of our mainstream media are critically flawed. Media are increasingly cozy with the powers they should be watchdogging, mergers in the news industry have limited the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media, and outlets are overwhelmingly owned by for-profit conglomerates.
We need to, of our own volition, evaluate the news we are reading to detect bias. These guiding questions from FAIR are an excellent starting point on how to do that:
- Who are the sources?
- Is there a lack of diversity?
- From whose point of view is the news reported?
- Are there double standards?
- Do stereotypes skew coverage?
- What are the unchallenged assumptions?
- Is the language loaded?
- Is there a lack of context?
- Do the headlines and stories match?
- Are stories on important issues featured prominently?
Accordingly, every outlet can be scrutinized for having various levels and types of biases. In selecting which outlets to track, there was no way to avoid these biases or to make a baseline to only assess outlets whose biases were at comparable levels. Had data been publicly available on news outlets’ app downloads and push notification subscriptions, I would have used that as my guide on which outlets to track, but it unfortunately was not.
Instead, I used the following criteria to determine the outlets I would track:
- Outlets with a U.S. base considered “mainstream” based on reputation, lifetime, readership, and viewership
- Have an iPhone app with an option to subscribe to push notifications
- Cover national news and U.S. politics
With that criteria, I landed on the below twelve outlets:
These twelve allowed for a range of mainstream media types — members of the ‘big four’ news agencies (AP, Reuters); top cable news channels that also happen to be top news alert providers (FOX, CNN); other cable news (NBC); top traditionally print newspapers (NYT, WaPo, USA Today, WSJ); non-profit membership media organization (NPR); disruptor media (BuzzFeed); and trade specific (CNBC) — to be assessed.
Any and all notifications can, and should, be evaluated for accuracy and reliability. To perform my analysis, I opted to review specific nationwide events that have occurred over the past three months instead of individual notifications to allow for constants when comparing the outlets’ responses.
Below I will identify the seven events, present the updates sent regarding those respective events, share where you can learn more information, and provide my personal assessment of said updates’ language, context provided, accuracy, and biased/unbiased nature.
However, I will leave the bulk of the assessment to you and allow you to draw your own inferences based on what the twelve outlets did or did not publish. As you read the push notifications, ask yourself:
- What would I think if this one update was the only source of information I had on the topic?
- Did all outlets send an update for this event? If not, why did some outlets perceive the event as important and some did not? Was it irresponsible to not inform their readers of this event?
- Is the language loaded or sensationalized?
- Is the language accurate and responsible?
- Is there a lack of context?
What Happened: On January 20, newly sworn-in President Trump hastily signed a vague executive order “minimizing the economic burden of the patient protection and affordable care act pending repeal.”
My Assessment: To me, these updates mostly presented a concern over the language being sent to subscribers. Those that used the word “burden” without quotes insinuated there is factually, undeniably a burden associated with Obamacare, rather than it being the word intentionally used by the Trump administration. This can give people an inaccurate impression of the issue and feed preconceived notions on Obamacare performance. Additionally, even with all of these updates, I still had no idea what implications the EO actually had.
What Happened: On February 3, President Trump ordered a rollback of regulations governing the financial services industry and Wall Street under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — the act signed into law by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system.
My Assessment: This presented a perceived importance question. Why did only four of twelve find this information to be worth sharing? Was it irresponsible for the other eight to not inform their readers that there will now be very little oversight over the financial industry?
What Happened: On January 6 the U.S. Department of Labor released The Employment Situation for December 2016, the final jobs report of the Obama administration.
My Assessment: These updates were another example of skewed language and framing. Publishing updates on the exact same jobs report, outlets used descriptors ranging from “lowest end to a year,” to “modest,” to “disappointing.” If you were only relying on one of these sources, your perception of whether or not the jobs report was good sign for our economy would likely contrast the perception of someone relying on a different outlet.
What Happened: On January 21, Press Secretary Sean Spicer attacked the media and falsely claimed President Trump had “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” among other lies told in a brazen statement to the White House press corps. Two days later he held his first official press conference, which was met my an abnormal concern over whether WH press briefings should be broadcast live to the public.
My Assessment: There is a blatant lack of context in FOX and NBC’s updates, neither of which referenced Sean Spicer’s tirade from two days prior. CNN and WaPo got it right on the money. They provided factual context that is essential for the public to know — if viewers are tuning in, they need to have enough info to decide if a source is trustworthy, even if that source is the Press Secretary.
What Happened: On January 21, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, millions of people gathered in Washington D.C. and worldwide in opposition to President Trump and to advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights and other issues, including women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers’ rights.
My Assessment: The most significant thing here is who ignored the very existence of the Women’s March. If you only followed FOX, NPR, CNBC, or Reuters you could have had no idea that protests were happening around the globe and in FOX’s case this allowed them to perpetrate their narrative that that the marches were ineffective gatherings held only by small groups of “coastal elites.”
What Happened: On December 8, Donald Trump nominated Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, climate change “skeptic,” and man who is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
My Assessment: Once again, essential context is missing. It is irresponsible to share the name of nominees without information on them, especially when that info is significantly controversial or their background directly contradicts the role they were nominated to fill. The pattern outlets who offered sufficient context and outlets who just shared names was in effect for most nominees, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ties to Russia and Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder’s opposition to raising the minimum wage.
What Happened: This is the big one — the story of Russia’s interference in our election, Obama’s response, conclusions from the intelligence community, and the Trump Administration’s ties to the Kremlin that just keeps evolving. It is hard to concisely boil down this event so I suggest you…
My Assessment: There is a lot to be unpacked here. It is clear you will miss a lot of information on this very serious and continuously growing topic if you only follow one outlet or if you only read push notifications. But, most notably to me is that FOX and Reuters have not sent a single update about anything related to Russia, essentially ignoring the entire situation. The closest they ever got was sharing that NSA Michael Flynn resigned — and in that update they did not mention his resignation was due to his pre-inauguration discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Disclosure: These are all of the push notifications that I received on my phone regarding the above topic. I cannot individually confirm that others were not sent, but if they were then media also need to address that all subscribers do not receive all of their alerts.
Over the past three months I have received hundreds of updates from these twelve outlets and became familiar with the patterns they follow as they send out notifications. As I wrap up being inundated by their alerts, I offer my views on each outlet’s performance to date.
- NPR — Alerts are pretty infrequent, but they generally include appropriate context. They can improve on making sure all alerts are contextualized and have a neutral tone.
- USA Today — The information is fairly neutral, but could benefit from providing more context.
- CNN — The updates are almost always delayed/late compared to other outlets, but CNN has improved tenfold since the election at providing context.
- NBC News — Notifications are infrequent and brief with little context; not overtly biased.
- The New York Times — NYT pretty much sets the standard for push notifications. They could improve in certain areas and should abstain from pushing non-breaking news stories they’re trying to get people to read, but overall pretty top notch.
- BuzzFeed — They need to refrain from hitting the send button. Sending emojis and far-too-frequent updates on non-breaking news from your news platform harms your credibility and ultimately is annoying.
- CNBC — If you do not want to be overwhelmed with stock updates, do not subscribe.
- Wall Street Journal — Send sparse and brief updates with little context, not overtly biased.
- FOX — To quote the great Rainn Wilson,
“I think news organizations have a profound responsibility to tell the truth and report unbiased facts. If this is the only news source that one turns to, one is going to see the world through a very biased and limited set of glasses. Do other news orgs have a bias or slant? Many say they do and that’s not good. But regardless, the “news” being reported by Fox is essentially propaganda of the most pathetic and ridiculous (and dangerous) variety.”
- The Washington Post — I would offer a similar review to that of NYT. WaPo has been breaking a lot of huge exclusives, so their notifications are extremely valuable.
- AP — Significant context provided for a newswire, generally neutral and informative.
- Reuters — Reads as basic newswire headlines, but their alerts provide little value given the lack of context.
Both the public’s news consumption habits and the media industry’s priorities are in critical need of rejuvenation. With the inauguration of a president who seeks to create his own facts, discredit dissent, and vilify the media, our tendencies to scan headlines and race to publish first have surpassed irresponsible and now directly play into the dangers confronting our democracy.
Trust in the media is already historically low and if blatant media bias persists we will lose the ability to have any national medium that differentiates fact from fiction. Likewise, if the people do not demand media changes or search for adequate information on elected officials and governmental affairs, we will forfeit our right to have a transparent system.
The industry needed changes long before Trump, but now these changes are even more consequential. Journalistic ethics on social media, in print, via broadcast, and on mobile all need to be tightened and upheld. Push notifications are just a piece of the equation, but they still matter.
The media can act significantly more socially responsible by setting industry standards on news alerts and establishing well-trained editorial teams to administer them. They can put in the extra effort to provide the background of the situation. They can diversify, add new perspectives, and renounce practices of pushing stereotypes and fueling narratives. They can, and should, do much better.
The information we receive and how we perceive it matters. The language and context matters. And yes, #FactsMatter.
Human development depends on the people’s access to information. We can protect our rights to pursue, publish, and obtain the information we deserve, but we all have to do our part.
And, in conclusion,