Repeating history: yellow journalism and fake news

In Content, Design by LauraLeave a Comment

The time in which I studied journalism feels like ages ago. At this point, my career has been so wholly consumed by the production of written and visual content across a variety of media that the principles underlying that creation are simply innate. In realizing that, as a content creator, I make a ton of assumptions daily about what our consumers and readers understand – I thought maybe I could help to shed some light here.

First, a story.

Exposing yellow journalism

As a kid, I had an assignment to research and report on the history and rise of muckraking. For those of you not as fortunate to ever encounter this concept, muckraking is the the action of searching out and publicizing scandalous information about people of notoriety. Often, these details are acquired by underhanded means and, more often, they uncover stories these people would much rather keep quiet.

Traditionally, muckraking coincided with non-fictional investigative journalism and was a term made most popular by the political reporters of the United States through the mid-1900s.

This is the moment where I desperately wish I had young Laura’s final muckraking assessment. No doubt, the decades-old report is swimming in a box of childhood papers in my mother’s basement. Someday, I will find it and the world will get my tweenage opinion on the one and only Upton Sinclair. For now, you’ll have to settle for my continued fascination with his story.

Upton Sinclair, for all intents and purposes, was our country’s first The Onion. Albeit, maybe with less sarcasm. His publication of books, exposés and articles spotlighted industry, reform and – among them – fiction.

To break that down a bit, a childhood librarian taught me to remember: non-fiction is represented by NF which stands for not fake, and fiction is represented by F which stands for…wait for it…fake.

The way in which The Onion sarcastically stabs at our society’s greatest flaws and chief complaints is eerily similar to the change-demanding work of Sinclair in the early 1900s. While many would dismiss it as muck or fake in either era – the points made are difficult to ignore.

Time Magazine called Sinclair “a man with every gift except humor and silence.” Regardless, his works had impact. Through his own articles and the juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction content as it related to society in his day – Sinclair spotlighted the flaws of what was known as “yellow journalism.” The American term described stories and publications delivering little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales.

Sound familiar?

In Sinclair’s 1919 review of yellow journalism – The Brass Check – he took on an industry of journalists while also spotlighting the practices of William Randolph Hearst Sr. Hearst had influenced media by emphasizing sensationalism and human interest over fact. For those keeping track, he had, in fact, established the largest newspaper chain and media company in the nation – Hearst Communications.

Sinclair called The Brass Check “the most important and most dangerous book I’ve ever written.” By 1923, it inspired the first code of ethics for journalists.

In revisiting this story, the older and wiser me has decided that I absolutely must read The Brass Check. You can snag a copy on Amazon too if you want to start a muckraking book club. I’m in.

Enter fake news

The significance of Sinclair’s story is that history, true to form, repeats itself.

With that most basic of introductions, I’m here to tell you that every medium we consume today is driven by one thing: money. Ultimately, this was the same fundamental driver of Hearst’s actions in the early 1900s. Today, even in an age where media has evolved dramatically across digital, television, radio and more – we’re putting many of his once-flamboyant practices to work as our norm.

Money, in media, is generated from advertising. Advertising is sold to brands and agencies in exchanged for audiences’ eyeballs and engagement. Audiences are gathered and engaged by content. The most profitable content is the content that gets clicked, shared and talked about – adding to its organic nature and reducing the cost of engaging the audience. To drive that action, it’s in the media company’s best interest to inspire emotion. Emotion is typically arrived at through fast attention-grabbing and polarizing statements – especially where politics are involved. These fast statements set an extremely low bar for the promotion of the content and set an even lower bar for delivery on the initial promise.

Consider this: how often do you see an outlandish headline in your Facebook feed? If it’s unbelievable enough, many people will click it. Once the link has been clicked, the ad is served. In reality, many ads are usually served. It only takes one click for the publication to make money by putting the ads in front of your eyes. They don’t even have to tell you a story. They just need you to click. With enough clicks and enough eyeballs – their small content investment is quickly repaid in full and the ongoing “viral” growth of the piece drives pure profit.

What’s more – in that same scenario, the publication gathers tons of data about you the minute you click the link. That data includes the ability to target you with even more links – which they know there is a higher likelihood you’ll click again. And, when you do, they’ll make even more money from the ads on that page, too.

Now, a true business person looks further at this scenario. The media company can purchase advertising for their content (think sponsored content ads for articles) to put the link in front of you. They can do this cheaper than what they will be paid when you click the link. And because they gather more data about you when you click, they are swimming in a sea of exponential profit. They receive money from the advertisers, data from you and, in exchange, all they had to do was write a headline worthy of your click. They didn’t have to invest in a well-crafted story at all. In fact, it was against their better interests to do so – because the time required to research and write the story would cut into their profits.

The term that has risen to cultural fame is “fake news” – but the storyline that shrouds the phrase is untrue in and of itself. Journalist, reporters, bloggers, amateur writers – hell, even integrity – still exists in the world on occasion. You must, though, know where to look. Know where to invest your trust. More than ever, an enormous amount of responsibility is placed upon the consumer to know and understand the content they’re consuming – regardless of how it came into existence or the ultimate purpose it serves.

Fake news is the modern day yellow journalism.

As it’s shouted on high by our current presidential face, fake news implies that a story is entirely fabricated. While this does happen – especially on the internet – the labeling of “fake news” is often enacted simply out of personal dislike. This is incorrect. Whether or not the story is liked doesn’t matter. As we learned with the influences from Sinclair, these types of journalism – adopted today – deliver little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using tactics and user experience patterns solely intended to increase sales.

I’m excited to share this new series with you – exploring the content types that have fueled the rise of the fake news platform. With my oddly unique background spanning journalism, marketing and user experience, I’ll point out the value and intention of content as it exists in the marketplace while also spotlighting the trickery that puts more money into big pockets without providing value to you. I’ll highlight what’s at stake in the value exchange when you give data for content and help you to measure the risk versus reward you face everyday.

We’ve entered a new age in which consumer responsibility, awareness and action in content consumption, promotion and data sharing are a necessity – and I’m happy to help you navigate it.

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