Dimitri (not his real name) is not your typical teenager. He’s a go-getter who rakes in thousands of dollars per month with his successful web business. Considering that Dimitri lives in Macedonia, where the average wage is about $400 per month, he’s a wildly successful entrepreneur.
There’s only one problem: Dimitri makes his money spreading fake news.
Dimitri, and other teenagers like him, run political websites designed to look like well-known news outlets, publishing made-up stories and distributing them through social media. These stories, with headlines like “Obama Refuses to Leave Office,” or “Trump to Deport All Refugees,” generate enough ad revenue to make Dimitri a wealthy young man.
Much has been made in recent weeks about the rise of “fake news,” and how it impacted the 2016 U.S. political election. Social media made it easy to amplify unfounded rumors. Traditional media outlets sometimes picked up hoax stories. And ambitious high schoolers like Dimitri posted articles that they made up during biology class.
There’s only one problem with this storyline: it assumes that “real news” and “fake news” are completely separate, as if news stories are either black or white. But today there are more shades of grey than Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe. Here’s why.
The Imaginary Line in the Sand
We’ve created an imaginary line in the sand, with “real news” on one side and “fake news” on the other. But what about left-leaning media outlets (like Mother Jones) and right-leaning media outlets (like Fox News)? What about blog posts? Opinionated tweets?
The chart at the top of the article shows Google News stories on two critical issues of our time: Trump’s feud with Rosie O’Donnell vs. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Treasury. The Treasury secretary will make real-world decisions that will affect the global economy for generations to come. Yet there are over 30 times more news stories about Trump and Rosie O’Donnell.
At one time, the media was necessary to know what was going on in the world. Before the Internet, how could you possibly find out what was happening in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing? The media told us what was going on, and we trusted them implicitly. When the great Walter Cronkite ended every newscast with his signature tagline, “That’s the way it is,” well, that’s the way things were.
With the rise of cable news, the goal was to get more eyeballs, and keep them glued for longer. It’s hard to fill a 24-hour news channel, because there’s really not that much news. The media gradually got more sensational, so no matter when you tuned into CNN, it looked like something important was happening.
The job of the Secretary of Treasury is boring and difficult to understand; a feud with a comedian is much more entertaining. But which one is real news, and which one is fake?
It’s time to redefine the role of the media.
Moving Humanity Forward
We no longer need the media to spread information. We have too much information. Now that every smartphone is a broadcasting station, and every Twitter user a field reporter, we no longer need multiple news outlets telling us what’s happening. This is why it’s so hard for newspapers to stay in business: we’re not willing to pay for content when it’s all free online.
I propose that the new goal of today’s media should be to move humanity forward. This was the original promise of the media: to inform and educate the public, for the greater good. Today, this means focusing on three things:
- Education: Most of us have only a surface understanding of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or how the U.S. really stands with China. The media could devote itself to simple, plain-English explanations of important issues that the average citizen could understand.
- Inspiration: The rise of TED Talks show that people want to be inspired with good ideas. Why not devote the time spent covering arson and murder cases to covering innovative technologies, companies, and ideas? Rather than reporting on the negative, why not inspire with the positive?
- Entertainment: Whether we want to admit it, we do want our news to be entertaining (which is why every major newspaper has a section devoted to it). News is boring. Why not hire newspeople specifically designed to entertain (like Dave Barry or the late Andy Rooney)?
There is value, of course, in true investigative reporting. When real journalists uncover scandal and corruption, that is a public good. But local stories, sports scores, weather: that’s just filler. You can get it all online, and usually without all the ads for the local Toyota dealer.
To move humanity forward is a far greater public good. The media has the biggest and loudest megaphone, and can use it most effectively. In an age where we don’t know what’s real and what’s fake, that is the best role for the media today.
I run a media company that does content marketing for businesses around the globe. Every one of our clients is a publisher, which means they’re in the media business, too. You are the media, if you blog or post or tweet. We are all the media, and we all have its power. Let’s use it wisely.
John Hargrave is CEO of Media Shower, the leading content marketing company. Click here to try us for free.
Image courtesy Michał Szymeczko via Flickr.