Partners in truth

The challenges faced by journalism helped set the stage for fake news: the fight back starts here



Challenges in journalism helped create a context where false information is spread – and undermined our trust in the media. The fight back begins in a partnership between journalists and communicators

When Oxford named ‘post-truth’ the 2016 word of the year, it only confirmed that the media now has a harder job to. The media business is undergoing pressure from all areas – digitalisation, changing business models and the political landscape. Communicators will need to understand the pressures that journalists are facing and consider how they should respond to the changes.

Last year, Mynewsdesk surveyed about 2000 journalists across the US, UK, Germany, the Nordics, Singapore and Australia. Mynewsdesk serves over 65,000 journalists and other influencers on their terms, providing company news from over 30,000 brands globally. The study was carried out to help us truly understand how a journalist’s reality has changed and what the future holds for both journalists and communicators. We also conducted several qualitative interviews with journalists and with experts like Rasmus Nielsen from Reuters Institute to validate the results.

A race against time

To be a successful journalist, the top requirement according to our survey was to have deep knowledge for the key subjects, followed by versatility in skills. Surprisingly, journalists did not deem the ability to deliver stories fast a factor to help them be successful, due to a great feeling of time pressure. Eighty-five per cent ranked “lack of time” in their top three frustrations.

Social media is a double-edged sword for journalists. Though it helps to discover and release stories at a faster rate, social media has also created more time pressure. Being the first to break news has been a long-standing competition: with social media, the competition is not just against fellow journalists, but also against citizen reporters, bloggers and other sources who are not bound by journalistic values.

Since social networks have become a distribution channel for news, social networks have responded by recognising their roles in the news landscape and introducing features for journalists. Twitter’s chief marketing officer, Leslie Berland, recently announced the end of Twitter’s status as a social network. Twitter is now listed in the news category in the app stores. Journalists are also using Facebook Live to find and share news, and connect with their audiences. Facebook has launched the ability for page administrators to designate specific journalists as contributors, giving them the ability to go live on behalf of a publication’s page.

Gone are the days when a journalistic assignment ends with submitting a story or an on-air report. Apart from publishing stories on the primary media they work for, the journalists we surveyed were required to publish content across an average of three channels, 60 per cent publish on Facebook, and 46 per cent on Twitter. A handful of them are expected to publish on video channels like YouTube, Snapchat and Periscope.

A multifunctional Swiss army knife

Apart from being stretched across social channels, journalists must also jugg le reporting with camera or illustrative skills. The journalists who participated in our study deemed “versatility in skills” as their second-most important success factor. Journalists are required to work across an average of three areas including writing and editing; the other areas were: social media, photography, data analysis, video and graphics. It comes as no surprise, since newsrooms are shrinking in human resource and the news business is competing for the attention of a “goldfish generation”. With the number of digital devices and applications increasing in our daily lives, according to Microsoft our attention span has fallen from an average of 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds today.

“We must start seeing our roles as partners to journalists in this battle against time and misinformation.”

News has to be easily digestible, and make sense within 140 characters or within the first few seconds of scrolling. Otherwise you lose your audience, possibly to citizen reporters, who could be spreading inaccurate or biased news. That’s a factor in post-truth information spreading like wildfire. There is no better way to capture attention quickly, than with the use of visuals. About 85 per cent of journalists stated that the demand for more visual content has grown in the last five years. However, journalists cited “lack of images and videos” as their third biggest frustration.

The New York Times released its 2020 report this January highlighting their group strategy to double their digital revenue. One of the key strategies in their plan was to “become more visual”. The report indicated that many journalists were enthusiastic about this however: “Many also said the obstacles to getting there were far too high, citing little or no access to graphics editors or the video unit. Several people said they wished they had the tools and ability to make simple graphics themselves.”

Citizen reporters, on the other hand, are not limited in the way they use or produce images. Scroll through Facebook and you will find funny memes and caption images with photos grabbed off other parts of the internet. Citizen reporters obviously don’t have an issue with copyright guidelines or how professional the images look, and their readers don’t either.

The freelancing entrepreneur

Nine out of 10 journalists in Mynewsdesk’s survey said media companies will hire more freelancers than full-time journalists. Many media publishers are reducing personnel, citing decreasing advertising revenues and a higher demand for more content. Freelancers have produced some of The New York Times’ best-read journalism. Also, on a per-dollar basis, freelance-written journalism has attracted a larger audience on average than their staff -written journalism. Though decreasing advertising revenues has not affected The New York Times, it is also in their agenda to increase overall spending in freelance resources, as part of their strategy to grow digital revenue. In response to that, Fusion’s senior editor, Felix Salmon predicted in a tweet: “More name-brand journalists, perhaps, who can singlehandedly draw subscriptions.”

As freelancing entrepreneurs, journalists will need to build a strong personal brand and fend for their own income. That coincides with Mynewsdesk’s findings that 75 per cent believe a journalist, as an individual, will become his or her own media.

The communicator's response

More than ever, communicators and employees must act responsibly on social media. It has media companies will hire more freelancers than full-time journalists. Many media publishers are reducing personnel, citing decreasing advertising revenues and a higher demand for more content. Freelancers have produced some of The New York Times’ best-read journalism. Also, on a per-dollar basis, freelance-written journalism off come quite common for journalists to take to social media for story sources, and even official quotes. In this social media age, audiences and organisations are vulnerable to how news is spread, and untruths can go viral. As such, both media and communicators have greater responsibility on social media. Responsibility does not just refer to what is communicated externally. It also refers to what is not yet said, and what could be implied. Communication heads will need to carry out training throughout the organisation so that employees understand the implications of their actions on social media. It will also be important to monitor and actively engage what is being said in relation to the organisation they represent.

Especially since journalists increasingly work on multi-channels and multi-formats, communicators need to be ahead by using a newsroom-mindset. That means stories need to be less one dimensional, packaged with research, quotes, visual illustrations and, at best, customised for different channels. Communicators will need to start investing in visual storytelling. Why use 400 words, when a story can be understood as an image?

Personal relationships become more important

As more journalists become freelancers, they will be receiving assignments from multiple publications. As they are more hard-pressed for time they will be stringent in filtering story pitches. Every story they work on represents a segment of their pay check. Communicators can no longer continue with traditional media relations, regularly reaching out to the same journalist at the same publication. Forget about reach, forget about mindless press distribution.

Communicators will need to re-think where their audiences are, and work on personal relationships. Since freelance journalists might develop their own brand and following, they could become influencers too. Communicators might no longer be pitching a journalist to get their stories to a publication’s audience; personal followers of journalists could be more relevant or targeted.

Sixty-four per cent of our survey respondents cited “credibility of the person/company pitching” as a very influential factor in deciding to pursue a story. Journalists prefer personal contact and press releases over search engines when sourcing stories.

Finally, communicators have an important role to play. Like newsmakers, communicators have the power to educate audiences and shape decisions. Traditionally, only media and journalists provide access to audiences. Now, organisations can reach audiences directly. Therefore, we must start seeing our roles as partners to journalists in this battle against time and misinformation.

Julia Tan

Julia Tan is head of global partnerships for Mynewsdesk. She has worked with communications across different cultural environments, and has past experience in diverse fields such as luxury fashion, music, international conferences, NGOs. Before joining Mynewsdesk in 2012 as team leader for Asia, Julia was marketing communications executive, luxury, for FJ Benjamin. Julia is also the project lead for global journalism study Journalism Trends 2016.