By the very nature of the field, journalists are subject to a degree of public scrutiny and standards that others are not. They are held to moral, ethical, and professional excellence because, as Phillip L. Graham states, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
Therefore, journalists understandably receive heavy backlash for errors, misstatements, and false reporting, especially in the frenzy of reporting a quickly-developing story, whether it be a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or a presidential election. In the age of the Internet, the possibility for error is exponentially higher. Journalists have almost endless sources, and sifting through mountains of material to present facts in virtually live-time leaves more than sufficient room for error. Often, verification is sacrificed for immediacy. Journalists face a constant balancing act between truth and time.
Today, journalists’ audiences are also their sources. The bottom line, then, is to respect your audience: both when they are your sources and when they are your readers. Here are five rules to respect your audience in all roles that they play.
Audience as a source
- Verify and your sources when using their media or quotes. Platforms such as Storyful demonstrate how to verify even the most anonymous sources through comprehensive Internet searches and networking.
- Confirm multiple, deep sources. Don’t attribute all of your information to just one source. Ask questions, follow up, and talk to other people. Relying on one story from one person discredits both the journalist and the source.
Audience as readers
- Remember that your readers will place trust in your sources. Verify that your sources are trustworthy and reliable. This can be as simple as a verified Twitter handle or as complex as digging through their Tweets to understand their perspective, experience, and context.
- “Get it first, but first get it right.” There is a huge amount of pressure to break a story, both from audiences and from networks vying for access to sources and ratings. But the consequences of reporting errors create even more pressure to perform. Prioritize presenting only confirmed facts.
- If you don’t know, admit that you don’t know. This is a fine line. To be a journalist and to not be in the know is a contradiction. But to be an honest journalist surrounded by journalists pretending to know can protect you from major backlash.
Social networks often operate like hive minds: ideas are presented and regurgitated, dissected and discussed, and then reinterpreted and replicated over and over again. After a while, the topics become predictable, the same conversations occur simultaneously in isolation and in context. Everyone has the same thing to say about the same topic, and yet we can’t seem to stop talking about them. So what am I talking about that we can’t stop talking about?
Fakebook events. You know exactly what I’m talking about, right? On NYE 2015 I attended “Crying and Eating Bread By Yourself on the Floor,” along with 70,000 of my closest friends. On January 20th, 2020, you can see that I will “quit school and become a professional piece of grass” at Australia’s K-Mart headquarters. Dozens of these events sprung up right around finals season. Students around the world pounced on them, articulating the very real feelings of despair, hopelessness, and anxiety that accompanies secondary education.
Donald Trump’s latest offensive comment. It’s a different one every day. First, he made snips about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly being on her period. Then he suggested we close our borders to Muslims. And then he made a commercial about it. Then he threw some explicit shade at HRC. Whatever he did yesterday, today, everyone is talking about it, everyone is pissed off, and everyone is threatening to move to Canada.
Northeastern’s obsession with flat screen TVs (and ensuing capitalistic ventures). Every year, tuition hikes up, and inevitably, come September, along with the anxious faces of doe-eyed freshmen, impossibly, more sleek flat screens pop up on on every flat surface of Northeastern’s space-ship inspired campus. And with the flat screens, disgruntled students complaining about how their tuition dollars go towards flat screens and President Auon’s salary instead of to adjunct faculty and service workers.
We understand the logic: higher tuition = more flat screens = more students attending NU = more money for NU = more flat screens, et cetera, et cetera. But we’re still not happy about it.
What to call ISIS. Among my hip, liberal Boston peers, we know better than to suspect that ISIS operatives posing as Syrian refugees are infiltrating our communities, but in place of xenophobia-fueled, Arthur Miller-proven hysteria, we are completely preoccupied with what to call ISIS, like giving it a particular name will change the way the group operates or suddenly present a solution that the U.S. government has not yet reached. According to Obama, it’s ISIL. If you’re in the EU, it’s “Daesh.” ISIS calls itself the “Islamic State.” There are connotations and implications for each name, but for some reason, we cannot grasp that all of the labels describe the same group.
The Green Line. Since the Green Line’s inception, there has never been a day in Boston’s history in which not a single person lamented the Green Line’s deplorable (lack of) upkeep, its arrogant ignorance of timeliness, or its tendency to shut down at least once a route for no particular reason, leaving commuters stranded in sub-freezing temperatures, wondering, again, why they put any faith into the country’s oldest subway. Says the MBTA: *shrug.*
It can be difficult to stay on top of the most recent stories: Twitter, Facebook, reddit, and Instagram are updated hundreds of thousands of times per minute by billions of users around the world. With our limitless access to information, breaking through the noise seems virtually impossible. Stories emerge and are disregarded instantaneously as newer, bigger stories take precedence until another comes along to supersede it.
Except for a few outliers. How is it that some stories persist, accumulating thousands of shares and views, while others get no more than a few seconds in the spotlight? Some stories go “viral,” spreading rapidly like a biological virus, infecting consumers and overloaded servers alike as if they have minds and agendas of their own.
Why do some stories go viral and others don’t? There’s no exact formula, but researchers have identified particular factors that influence a story’s “spreadability“: how likely consumers are to share media with others.
So how can you become the next white and gold (sorry, we proved it) dress?
- Stop being so depressing. Research shows that people are less likely to share a story (online and in real life) if the content doesn’t have a happy ending. That’s why you’re more likely to happy-cry to videos on your newsfeed of soldiers surprising their families (14.7 million views), or better, their dogs (36.9 million views), than a memorial for a lost loved one. That doesn’t give anyone the warm fuzzies.
- Inspire your audience. We like things that leave us feeling inspired, that give us the sense that people are genuinely good, that love exists, and that there is more to life than Netflixing Criminal Minds and aimlessly swiping through Tinder. The Internet collectively cried over Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels” (56.2 million views) video, reminding us that love comes in many, many different ways.
- Show, don’t tell. The Huffington Post found that the single most spreadable form content is the infographic, followed closely by lists. Visuals and organization are key in telling a spreadable story, like “11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures.” (370,000 views) But surprisingly, video was shared less frequently than other types of media.
- Be shocking. It’s no secret that people are drawn to the dramatic, whether it’s crime TV, Cirque Du Soleil, or Donald Trump’s horrifying new rally song (4 million views in 3 days) Content that elicits an emotional reaction, whether it be awe, excitement, or disgust, is memorable. Therefore, we are more inclined to talk about our reaction with others.
- Master web analytics and social media strategy. Even if the content is perfect, strategic social media choices can skyrocket your views, shares, and likes. Apparently, Tuesdays are the best days to post content looking for shares, and content shared during the work day gets shared more than the early morning or late evening (no surprise there.)
None of this information should be surprising. People want to feel things, and they want to feel better than they did before they saw your content. And once they feel something, they want to talk about it with their friends. And more often than not, they do it while they’re avoiding responsibility.