Saturday 23 September 2017

Steve Dempsey: Donald Trump could be the man to save the media from itself

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with reporters. Photo: Getty
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with reporters. Photo: Getty
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Ever since the US election, the US and international media has bounced from hand-wringing to navel-gazing and back again. "Media has itself to blame for epic election fail," said USA Today's Michael Wolff. "The media didn't see Trump coming. And even now, it doesn't know why," stated the Guardian. "Media culpa? The press and the election result," quipped the New Yorker. The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg claimed that the president-elect tested the norms of objectivity in journalism.

But here's a thought: what if Donald Trump's victory is a wake-up call that the media needed?

The US media has reported on Trump almost unceasingly over the past year. Photo: Getty
The US media has reported on Trump almost unceasingly over the past year. Photo: Getty

What if the president-elect's sensationalism over substance approach will cause a radical rethink of how users support their news outlets of choice and how news is spread on social media? What if Trump's ability to expose the flaws in the modern media is a critical step in fixing them?

Let's take social media first. Specifically, let's take Facebook. The social network caught so much flak that Mark Zuckerberg penned a personal note on his company's role in the election. He maintained it was unlikely that fake news changed the outcome of the election and it isn't Facebook's job to separate facts from fiction. "Identifying the 'truth' is complicated," he wrote. "While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted ... I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves."

But, wait - then there was an about-face from Facebook. The social network then banned fake news sites from using its Audience Network ad platform. This will have little effect on the spreading of fake news stories on people's news feeds, but it's better than nothing. Maybe Facebook was just keeping up with the Joneses. Google got there first, banning websites that propagate fake news from using its online advertising platforms.

But the plot thickens. According to BuzzFeed News, an unofficial task force has formed within Facebook to interrogate the role the company played in promoting fake news during the election. The group is reportedly meeting in secret for now, and intends to make a list of recommendations to Facebook's senior management when it emerges from the shadows.

So it seems that the tech titans are taking some sort of principled stand one way or another. But what about traditional news outlets? How might Donald Trump's victory be affecting them?

Well, Trump may be good for business. Comedian John Oliver issued a call to action to support traditional media on HBO's Last Week Tonight. "Instead of sharing partisan memes you found on republigoofs.redneck and democrappy.cuck," he deadpanned, "you need to support actual journalism by buying a subscription to the [New York] Times, the [Washington] Post or your local newspaper or donating to groups like ProPublica, a non-profit that does great investigative journalism".

Many US media outlets are seeing a post-Trump bump in subscriptions. ProPublica stated that donations were running at 10 times the normal rate. The New York Times (in a spat on Twitter with one Donald J. Trump, wouldn't you know) announced that print and digital subscriptions had grown fourfold since the election. While the Guardian has seen a 'significant' rise in membership with membership increasing at rates up to 25 times higher than normal.

Of course, this could be seen as the knee-jerk reaction of liberals eager to bolster the coffers of the outlets that conform with their world view. And the flipside is that the likes of Breitbart, the self-styled honey badger of alt-right journalism, is riding high due to its close links to the Trump campaign.

But events like the US election and Brexit are highlighting the shortcomings of letting algorithms decide how news is distributed, relying on rants for ratings and tolerating racism, misogyny and misinformation for their value as a spectacle.

Perhaps it was always going to take a figure like Donald Trump to force technology companies to examine their practices, to remind media outlets to challenge establishment and anti-establishment viewpoints alike, and to make audiences reconnect with outlets that aim to inform the majority of the public regardless of their ideological leanings.

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