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Reputation matters. Don’t bend under platform pressure

December 7, 2023 | By Jieun Shin, Assistant Professor, College of Journalism and Communications – University of Florida @Jieun____Shin

People are increasingly opting out of the news. According to the Digital News Report 2023 from Oxford University’s Reuters Institute, 36% of people around the world sometimes or often actively avoid news. So it is no surprise that “news avoidance” has emerged as a hot topic among academics who study news media. It’s a growing problem, with major implications for society. 

In fact, this topic was chosen as the main theme of the pre-conference at the 2023 International Communication Association (ICA), the largest conference in the field of communication. The event was packed with speakers and attendees who poured over analysis and future predictions. Presenters cited numerous studies that show that those who don’t read the news are less likely to vote and feel detached from the community. 

Unsurprisingly, there is no simple solution to this crisis. However, there was a general consensus that there’s a need for an increase in public assistance, education, and policies that support news media. 

But ask yourself: If there were public funding available to support news as a public service, would your organization qualify? Are you providing quality news? Or have you fallen prey to algorithmic enticements to chase clicks?

An alarming trend

The news avoidance trend has been underway for a long time, driven by several factors. For one, people are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information. They also feel worn out by a constant flow of grim news, which is cognitively exhausting. And let’s face it – from TikTok dance challenges to cat memes – there are a ton of entertaining alternatives for people to tune in to online.

But while people are enjoying entertaining content on their social feeds, they are also consuming news on these platforms. Or at least they think they are. 

People have developed a news-finds-me (NFM) mentality, which creates the illusion that they are well-informed about important news even when they are not. Because they have access to news (or a facsimile of it) through social media any time and all the time, people falsely believe important news will find them. 

This becomes particularly alarming as we increasingly see social and search platforms actively back away from news brands. A New York Times article points to actions and announcements by the likes of Meta (parent to Facebook and Instagram), X (aka Twitter), and even Google that make news less visible. 

For news publishers, these converging trends point to a shrinking audience and a fiercely competitive environment for attention. 

Attention-seeking behavior

One temptation is writing for eyeballs. Anyone vying for attention online knows that clickbait, rage-bait, and sensational news perform well in the digital marketplace. Arguably, social platforms incentivize this type of content. 

Sadly, low-quality content typically outperforms high-quality news in terms of today’s measures of ROI. Sensational stories, aggregated news, and gossip are cheap to produce and easy to spread. 

Even more worrisome is the fact that numerous studies (including mine) have found that false information spreads more quickly and widely on social media than true information. Unlike quality news reports, which are bound by facts, fake news and titillating stories can be created solely to capture audience attention, with whatever claims or sensational statements capture the most views. 

So how can genuine news compete in this marketplace of attention? The playing field seems rigged in favor of hyperbolic sludge. 

What we are observing today is a systematic problem that no single innovative business model can break through. It is a combined result of a vicious news cycle, distracted consumers, the dominance of platforms, and more. At least the growing journalism crisis provides a clear call to action. Media scholars even say that fake news is the best thing that’s happened to journalism. It allows high-quality news media to shine.

But while scholars continue to see the value of quality news, the trend of news avoidance among general audiences continues. Not only is it critical that we find a means to support the production of quality news, but we must also figure out how to re-engage audiences with it. 

Solutions for journalism

From growing cries for social platform reform to tax-based and remunerative approaches, there are voices demanding public interventions to support sustainable news. In the U.S., legislation designed to support local news is increasingly popping up in Congress and state legislatures. 

Given their dominance in the consumption of news, platforms should be pressured to incorporate measures of news quality into their ranking algorithms. Currently, several projects such as the Trust Project and NewsGuard provide credibility measures of news sites to elevate quality news. 

Media literacy programs also offer some promise for publishers, as they emphasize the reputation of sources. For example, some university and local libraries keep track of reliable news sources and share the lists with residents. 

In the meantime, news publishers must stick to the core values that are the foundation of journalistic work. Of course that is easier said than done given all the systematic obstacles listed above. The unfortunate reality is that quality news is expensive to produce. And, from the available metrics, this so-called high-quality news is not sufficiently valued in the marketplace.

However, reputation matters in the media business. Therefore, competing on the social platforms’ terms – with eyeball-chasing clickbait – won’t solve the attention deficit and will likely only exacerbate the misinformation problem (as people skim misleading headlines). While publishers may have to pivot to what’s working on social platforms (video, for example), they must not sacrifice core standards. 

In the post-truth era, trust is the most valuable capital. Maintaining journalistic quality is the only way to protect the business in this tumultuous time. News providers are wise to remember that reputation is difficult to build but easy to destroy. 

About the author

Jieun Shin (Ph.D, University of Southern California) is an Assistant Professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. Her research explores information diffusion on social media focusing on misinformation and news use.