Why headlines don’t matter

A few people have blogged about this report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. They compared what constituted the headlines for online stories, and traditional media. They put it like this:

If someday we have a world without journalists, or at least without editors, what would the news agenda look like? How would citizens make up a front page differently than professional news people?

Which they did by looking at the top stories on sites such as Digg compared with those from traditional providers. The takeaway (amongst some interesting stuff) is

"In a week when the mainstream press was focused on Iraq and the debate over immigration, the three leading user-news sites–Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us–were more focused on stories like the release of Apple’s new iphone and that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth, according to the study."

The implication is that far from being the place where the informed debate is taking place, the net is more trivial compared with proper media. This is too good for internet detractors to pass up, and Nick Carr duly obliges:

"The techno-utopians would have use believe that citizen journalism will provide an antidote to the mainstream media’s long-run shift away from hard news and toward soft news, that it will counter the trend toward news-as-entertainment and entertainment-as-news. But the indication so far is that the precise opposite is true. When you replace professional editors with a crowd or a social network, you actually end up accelerating the dumbing-down of news. News becomes a stream of junk-food-like morsels. "

I agree with George Siemens who says that this is not a valid comparison, as Digg tends to be about technology:

"The real point isn’t the content itself. Rather, it’s that any community can filter information that it finds to be of greatest importance. What is valuable is process, not the specific content. Many of the news sites – like digg.com – are focused on the tech community. Why not ask what the gossip magazines were discussing while mainstream media was doing "serious work". I’m guessing the journalistic emphasis of these magazines were heavily focused on Britney, Paris, and Lindsay. This is just silly."

But I’d go further as well – Nick Carr is simply not getting it here, or rather not getting several things. The first is that being online isn’t about the most popular stories, but about your stories. So what I read will rarely match the top stories, I will have devised my own news agenda. Whereas in traditional media I don’t have that choice.

Secondly, the report and Carr make the error of thinking what people share is the same as what they read. This isn’t so. The stuff that is shared is often viral, short, and entertaining. Take the Miss Teen South Carolina vid that did the rounds recently. Not big news but the sort of thing people from all different backgrounds share (funny, but I agree with John Connell there was a bit of intellectual cruelty about some of it). This doesn’t mean that people are not also discussing other topics in detail, they just may not share these with as many people, since they don’t have the broad appeal. For instance, anyone who thinks the blogosphere hasn’t got much to say on Iraq, simply isn’t paying attention.

Thirdly, we’re in long tail territory here. The headline for this report should be ‘headlines don’t matter.’ I spend a lot of time reading online stuff, and very little of it is the junk food morsels Carr describes. Why? Because there is so much stuff to choose from. News items that might not be popular to the general audience are significant to me. Headlines or ‘front pages’ only matter when you are talking about mass broadcast. We’re not, that’s the point.

Lastly, less the news people should be patting themselves on the back excessively, it would be good to compare the depth of analysis available in the two mediums. The US media in particular has not covered itself in journalistic glory in the debate around the Iraq war for instance. And had the focus of this research been on UK news they would have found the media obsession with the McCann case dominating the headlines, which has been mainly based on rumour and gossip. And had the report taken in to account tabloid newspapers then it would less worthy again.   

One Comment

  1. I read Dig links when I’m totally caught up on everything else — it’s the equivalent of watching East Enders really. Not to be confused with news at all!
    Your second point is right on the money: what will gain a quick positive reaction from my online peers does not have a correlation to what I feel (and write) strongly about.

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