danah boyd


teeninternet_depositphotos

Rule #1: do no harm; rule #2: fear-mongering is harmful

This article originally appeared on scholar and researcher danah boyd’s blog and on Medium.

I believe in the enterprise of journalism, even when it lets me down in practice. The fourth estate is critically important for holding systems of power accountable. But what happens when journalists do harm?

On Sunday, a salacious article flew across numerous news channels. In print, it was given titles like “Teenagers can no longer tell the real world from the internet, study claims” (Daily Mail) and “Real world v online world: teens do not distinguish” (The Telegraph). This claim can’t even pass the basic sniff test, but it was picked up by news programs and reproduced on blogs.

The articles make reference to a “Digital Lives” study produced by Vodafone and Google, but there’s nothing in the articles themselves that even support the claims made by the headlines. No quotes from the authors, no explanation, no percentages (even though it’s supposedly a survey study). It’s not even remotely clear how the editors came up with that title because it’s 100% disconnected from the article itself.

So I decided to try to find the study. It’s not online. There’s a teaser page by the firm who appears to have run the study. Interestingly, they argue that the methodology was qualitative, not a survey. And it sounds like the study is about resilience and cyberbullying. Perhaps one of the conclusions is that teens don’t differentiate between bullying at school and cyberbullying? That would make sense.

Yesterday, I got a couple of pings about this study. Each time, I asked the journalist if they could find the study because I’d be happy to analyze it. Nada. No one had seen any evidence of the claim except for the salacious headline flying about. This morning, I went to do some TV for my book. Even though I had told the production team that this headline made no sense and there was no evidence to even support it, they continued to run with the story because the producer had decided that it was an important study. And yet, the best they could tell me is that they had reached out to the original journalist who said that he had interviewed the people who ran the study.

Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?

I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived by the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?

As excited as I am to finally have my book out, it’s been painful to have to respond to some of the news coverage. I mean, it’s one thing to misunderstand cyberbullying but what reasonable person can possibly say with a straight face that today’s youth can no longer distinguish between the internet and everyday life!?!? Gaaaah. It starts to feel like science fiction.

danah boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a research assistant professor in media, culture, and communication at New York University, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”  Follow her on Twitter @zephoria. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment
fear

The ethics of fear and how it undermines an informed citizenry

Fear is a powerful emotion. When people are afraid, they react. It can also be put to use. When people have a vested interest in motivating other people to react, they may try to capture their attention through fear.

Thanks to the Internet, people have more access to more information at their fingertips than ever before in human history. Yet, this creates a new challenge for those who are trying to produce and disseminate information. What has emerged is an “attention economy,” where capturing people’s attention can often be challenging. Organizations that depend on people’s attention – including news media – go to great lengths to seize their focus by any means possible.

In a fast-moving information landscape, fear can sell almost as well as sex. Fearful headlines draw people in by capitalizing on their concerns and anxieties. Politicians, pundits, and journalists use fear mongering to draw attention to issues, often justified as informing the public. The more limited the channel – or the more likely that someone will walk on by – the more tempting it is to use exaggerated and fear-producing frames.

From soundbytes to headlines to tweets, quick and dirty messages are designed to provoke reaction. TV news and radio talk show programming use auditory queues, linguistic patterns, and segment cliffhangers in order to entice people to stay attentive. Fear is regularly employed because it works. Fear generates attention and helps draw in an audience.

As our society grows increasingly networked, our attention faces a critical crossroads. On one hand, we are presented with increasing volumes of information and our access to available sources of information continues to grow. Meanwhile, our time and attention is still severely limited and, increasingly, commoditized. Given these conflicting trends, the battle for people’s attention is likely to grow. But at what costs? And with what implications?

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry and, ideally, the role of the journalist is to inform the public. But, in a capitalist-oriented society, the product of a journalist’s efforts must be valued in commercial terms. Thus, journalists and editors are not simply pursuing stories to inform the public; they are selecting for narratives that will entice desirable viewers in order to appease advertisers. Given these very real pressures, how should we understand the ethics of using fear to increase attention? …

Capturing attention, at whatever cost

The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear. In the 1970s, the scholar Herbert Simon argued that “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

His arguments give rise both to the notion of “information overload” but also to the “attention economy.” In the attention economy, people’s willingness to distribute their attention to various information stimuli create value for said stimuli. Indeed, the economic importance of advertisements is predicated on the notion that getting people to pay attention to something has value.

News media is tightly entwined with the attention economy. Newspapers try to capture people’s attentions through headlines. TV and radio stations try to entice people to not change the channel. And, indeed, there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention, often with a reputational cost. Yellow journalism tarnished newspapers’ credibility with scary headlines intended to generate sales. The history of radio and television is sullied with propaganda as political ideologues leveraged social psychology to shape the public’s opinion.

Now, along comes social media. Social media brings with it massive quantities of information – unscripted, unedited, and uncurated. Going online is like swimming in an ocean of information. The very notion of being able to consume everything is laughable, even as many people are still struggling to come to terms with “information overload.” Some respond by avoiding environments where they’ll be exposed to too much information. Others try to develop complicated tactics to achieve balance. Still others are failing miserably to find a comfortable relationship with the information onslaught.

Given the increase of information and media, those who want people to consume their material are fighting an uphill battle to get their attention. Anyone who does social media marketing knows how hard it is to capture people’s attention in this new ecosystem.

The more stimuli there are competing for your consideration, the more that attention seekers must fight to incentivize you to look their way. More often than not, this results in psychological warfare as attention-seekers leverage any and all emotions to draw people in. …

When I was a child, the size of the paper and the length of the news hour limited the amount of information that a news media outlet could disseminate. When CNN took news to a 24-7 format and talk radio emerged, more news was needed to fill the time. Rather than using that time to unpack complex geopolitical news, most news channels took to increasing their coverage of juicy stories – gossip about celebrities, biopics on everyday people, and stories about the grotesque, bizarre, or esoteric.

The local news mantra “If it bleeds, it leads” went to another level such that people heard about horrible things happening outside of their local world. The shift to the Internet has only increased this trend, as news media outlets report on man-eating snakes and meth-addicted parents letting their kids starve to death. Are these stories enticing? Definitely. But are they typical? Definitely not. Yet, when people hear stories of people, they imagine these people to be close to them.

News media is leveraging the Internet to broadcast stories and attract attention from viewers. To enable this, they often make it easy for viewers to spread stories via email, Facebook, or Twitter. What circulates is often the content with the least geopolitical consequence. Fearful messages spread, particularly stories that play into parental anxieties. When journalists are rewarded for viewership, there’s a perverse motivation to play into people’s attraction to freak shows and horror, regardless of the broader social consequences.

Journalists and news media are responding to existing incentives. They’re incentivized to generate audiences that they can then sell to advertisers. They’re incentivized to capture attention by any means possible. The underlying incentive to inform and educate is still there, but it’s muddied by the corporatized incentives to increase eyeballs. Left unchecked and incentivized to increase viewership at whatever costs, news media will continue to capitalize on fear and increase the culture of fear in the process. …

Combatting fear in an attention economy

In an attention economy, the brokerage of attention is a form of power. What news media covers and how it covers it matter. There’s a fine line between creating an informed citizenry and creating a fearful citizenry.

Just as journalists think through the consequences of covering suicides in their reporting, so too must they be thoughtful about how they choose to cover issues that induce, promote, or spread fear. Capturing people’s attention is critical, but increasing societal fear in order to capture attention has significant consequences that must be considered. Journalists and news agencies have an ethical responsibility to account for the externalities of their reporting.

As we fully embrace a networked society, we need to consider what guiding principles should influence decisions about the spread of information. I would argue that three principles should be at the center of contemporary journalistic practice:

  1. Journalists always make choices about what to cover and what not to cover. Maintain a commitment to creating an informed and healthy society and focus on stories that help the public better understand the complex world in which we live.
  2. Seek to avoid distortion and strive for nuance and accuracy, even when focused on soundbyte messaging.
  3. Never forget that journalism is a public good. All communication is impression management. Use language and messaging to combat fearful impressions and increase the public’s understanding.

Just as societies are dependent on information to enable citizenry, societies can be undermined and fragmented through fear. There is nothing neutral about the practice of reporting and it behooves journalists to draw from anthropologists and reflexively account for how their work affects the communities they serve. As our society gets increasingly networked, we need to hold onto the importance of creating a healthy citizenry. Key to that is a commitment to not allow fear to take over.

danah boyd is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. This essay is part of a larger work on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. These ideas will be presented during a symposium in New York today at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. danah boyd will participate in a panel at 2:45 p.m. on “The Story: What Stories Do People Want and Need?” The event will be live streamed on Poynter.org, where there is also a complete schedule.

Read more

Tools:
1 Comment