When Publications Run Things They Shouldn’t…and They Know It

We live in a world of a rapidly shifting media landscape, one in which the way people interact with media is changing, and the way media is presented is changing as well. While media has always been about grabbing eyeballs to sell papers, magazines, subscriptions, and the like, dwindling attention spans are forcing the hands of media creators to come up with new ways of achieving that goal. Less thoughtful, insightful, complex journalism: more quick hit pieces and controversies to get as many people talking about something as possible. In true ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ tradition, many publications are increasingly making the decision to run things they know they shouldn’t, with the calculated goal of getting a reaction.

These things follow predictable patterns. Papers and other publications know their audiences extremely well. They use surveys, sales tracking, and other tools to find out how old their readers are, to learn about their politics, to study how, when, where, and why they access given stories and materials. These data are incredibly valuable and major media companies have entire departments dedicated solely to reader statistics and compiling information on audiences, while smaller firms rely on hired companies to collect the same data.

Information about readerships is used to determine things like website and paper layouts. To pick and choose columnists. To decide what kinds of stories should be reported, how, and when. These things tie into larger editorial missions — thus, for example, the¬†National Review¬†is a conservative publication, its readers are conservative, and it produces conservative content, in a circular effect. For new media, especially web-only media, a huge part of making a go of it in the online landscape is getting as many unique pageviews as possible, by any means.

That means a very high story turnover, with speed and volume being valued over quality and thoughtfulness. It also means the generation of as many calculated controversies as possible, as these draw readers. Readers will come to oppose or defend, they’ll click the link in discussions about it, they’ll use the piece as a jumping-off ground to shred or praise the editors along with the author. People working in new media know and understand this, as do most of their readers, who are perfectly capable of seeing when they’re being played like violins by pageview-hungry editorial staffs. They often point this out in comments, noting that ‘controversies’ are a bit too calculated and played to be coincidental, especially given that sites know their readers.

News and commentary sites knowingly publish things that will anger readers, and preferably deeply offend them, because they know this will result in more traffic, which means higher numbers to show advertisers, which means more revenue for the parent site. This observable and documented phenomenon is familiar to anyone working in media (especially those of us in new media, some of whom are sometimes encouraged to participate in the creation or facilitation of manufactured controversies designed to anger and upset readers). It’s also, as I discussed above, easy to see for reasonably media-literate readers, or those who follow given publications closely and begin to observe specific patterns of behaviour; a week or so of relatively unremarkable content, or content designed to mobilise readers as a group to get angry about something external, followed by an inflammatory piece dropped like a giant flaming turd onto the screens of readers so they can become infuriated at the site itself — and, critically, so that people outside the site ‘family’ will be induced to participate in the coming firestorm.

The question, thus, is not so much why this happens or how it’s enabled, but how we move away from it, socially and culturally. Is it possible to create a world in which attempts to manipulate readers like this simply flop, where readers resist being played and don’t work within the framework editors very much want them to? What would such a world look like, and what role do media consumers play in pushing publications to do better, to focus on actual news and commentary rather than flamebait and transparent attempts at getting the Internet angry for the purpose of generating more uniques?

The advice that trolling should simply be ignored and it will go away is common. The prevailing attitude seems to hold that if upsetting or irritating things are simply closed quietly behind a door, they’ll wither away and die. Yet, people largely ignore this advice when it comes to the latest controversy of the week, and no small wonder when it involves things like reinforcements of -isms, appalling ignorance, ridiculous commentary, or frustrating attitudes. Readers are often inclined to have a kneejerk response in the face of that because to say nothing is to feel complicit — if you don’t speak when you see something atrocious happening, how can you face yourself in the morning? It creates a strange doublebind for readers, who could choose simply to ignore flamebait and focus on other things of interest, but who in doing so would also reinforce the ideas put forward in the offending piece.

As has been demonstrated numerous times online, boycotts of specific sites are also not terribly effective, in part because those who proudly proclaim that they are stomping off never to return again seem to slink back in a week or so, thus undermining their heroic gestures.

How do media consumers fight back against a culture that’s structured around manipulating them? Consumers have tried demanding better media, they’ve tried organising against specific publications, they’re tried organising campaigns to hold specific outlets accountable for given actions, yet this cycle endlessly repeats itself, because outlets know that they can keep getting away with running things they shouldn’t for drama, controversy, attention, and, of course, pageviews. What has to happen for editors and publishers to stop running things they know they shouldn’t?