Does it all come down to empathy, the lack thereof?
Wednesday’s post ended this way, referring to fake news: “At least we can agree on what we don’t want and work to snuff it out.”
Not so fast. WAMU’s Diane Rehm spent part of Wednesday’s show on “The Power of Fake News And Personalized News Feeds.” Listeners who called in said that fake news was not a problem because Trump supporters were smart enough to know it was fake, and besides, plenty of real news was out there to counter it.
Common sense leads us to believe that, if fake news didn’t generate ad revenue or sway views, it wouldn’t exist. Fake news exists because it works, both as a source of money and as a powerfully persuasive tool. Fake news pays off.
But of course, the premise that Trump won because fake news swayed voters is insulting to those who voted for him.
Some of Diane Rehm’s listeners were understandably defiant. The mainstream media didn’t hear us, they seemed to be saying, so we turned away from you. We created, read and repeated the work of our own, preferred news sources because you weren’t speaking to us.
Which brings to mind the words of Terry Egger, CEO and publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network.
The Philadelphia Media Network, a public benefit corporation, is an enormous experiment in news business modeling, and, through its parent, the The Institute for Journalism in New Media, is fostering the creation and study of other news models, as well.
Egger was a speaker at the New England Newspaper & Press Association 2016 Conference. During his talk, he explained the three principles that are guiding him as he strives to lead the way to a sustainable news future. First of the three: empathy.
There was a time, Egger reflected, when newspapers controlled the message, its distribution and how and when it was distributed. Now, the receiver has all the power. “We have got to establish the relevance of what we do,” Egger said. “We have to think of our customers, deeply, always.”
How, exactly, does one do that in a newsroom?
Perhaps by following up on voters the paper wrote about when Obama first took office, the ones who were laid off, lost their homes, lost their way, to find out how they are faring now. As well as bank and mortgage company executives and the companies’ owners.
Perhaps by spending a day on the job with an undocumented immigrant and writing about the low-level jobs that local employers can’t find citizens to fill.
Perhaps by treating the campaign as a job-hunting exercise — the kind so many readers face — inviting them to help draft a job description for the office of president, sticking it out front, measuring each candidate’s qualifications against it.
Perhaps by recognizing how overwhelmed readers are by the volume and complexity of information they encounter, and so making content as clear as possible — consistently labeling all opinion pieces as such, being careful of our word choices, being cognizant of the shift of labels (sexist, racist, misogynist) from the candidate’s comment to the candidate, and justifying that shift when it occurs. For readers are simply too busy to parse our meaning from our words.
If we had begun each day considering what our readers were facing as they drank their morning coffee — might our news coverage have been different?
A news business model is only a skeleton. We humbly suggest that Terry Egger’s use of empathy as a guiding principle is a good idea for all who labor to turn that skeleton into the body of work that keeps our democracy strong.
For more on fake news, see: