19 May 2016
Evangeline de Bourgoing
“The daily repetition of news about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is ‘learned helplessness’,” writes the Swiss author, Rolf Dobelli in a Guardian piece entitled “News is bad for you”. Beyond the provocation, Dobelli pinpoints an issue felt by many readers: why going through the pain of reading distressing news if there is nothing they can do?
As early as 1970s, scholars1 have been researching how tragic news can instill a sense of powerlessness leading to apathy and avoidance. But this phenomenon might have gotten worse over the past few years with the race for eyeballs where attention-grabbing content is king. When news competes with entertainment “the weapon of choice is often emotion” argues Ravi Somaya, former media reporter at The New York Times,referring to last year’s most viral stories. But paradoxically, it could be that the more journalists attempt to engage the readers with emotional news, the more they create a sense of frustration when readers realise they cannot act on issues they are now aware of and invested in. These practices could cause readers to disengage from this type of news in the long run.
How can news organisations break this cycle? How can they offer their readers more meaningful ways to react to news than just sharing articles on social media? How can they empower their readers to take action?
These were the challenges that news organisations had to tackle during The Huffington Post and Change.org Editors Lab hackathon that took place last April in New York City. A team from the digital-native news site Mic, composed of Sarah Singer, Tri Vo and Ryan Campbell, won the competition with their prototype Offsite.
Offsite is a widget that can be inserted next to an article that indicates how readers can act on the issue raised. Offsite provides three different ways for readers to get involved in causes related to news topics: sign a petition, donate to an organisation or RSVP to a demonstration. Leaving the readers free to choose which action to take might prove more efficient than solely encouraging readers to donate to big charities, as news organisations sometimes do. For a younger audience who is cash-strapped yet over-solicited, willing to help yet constantly challenging charities’ relevance, this is an interesting model to explore.
In addition to the widget, the team is also working on a chatbot that will keep Mic readers aware of advocacy issues and ways they can get involved.
But with such a tool that encourages social action, does Mic risk compromising its objectivity and slipping into advocacy? "Objectivity has been debated for years", replied Cory Haik, Mic's chief strategy officer, in an interview with Poynter. "It's a subjective conversation. I think you could go to the ivory towers of journalism and talk to the most respectable journalism schools, and what you'll get inside that world is people saying, 'I'm not sure that you can be entirely objective. I'm not sure it's possible.” According to the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media Ethan Zuckerman, “We’re all already doing advocacy journalism”. Making news judgement about which events to cover, which topic to put forward is advocacy journalism. In a world where attention is scarce, stating that an issue is worth a readership’s attention is already political act.
Zuckerman adds that advocacy journalism is the best way to react to how the the model of citizenship has changed in recent years. Young people want to have an impact but find it hard to believe that they can make change through the traditional political institutions. They have a more personal, decentralised and pointillist approach to involvement. They sign petitions, crowdfund or demonstrate about single issues rather than get involved in large political parties and groups. News organisations need to facilitate this new type of citizenship. Otherwise they risk not only losing millennials as news consumers but also diminishing their role in the civic dialogue.
Offsite will officially launch next month. Its ability to drive positive change will depend on how carefully Mic selects the initiatives it will promote and how scrupulously it will involve the sponsors monetising Offsite. GEN will keep you posted on this progress.
(1) As shown by David Morley in Television and Common Knowledge, p 137–138 — Routledge, Jan 22, 2002