There’s no denying that social media has changed the way in which we consume news. But it is becoming evident that the way we now consume news has begun to change how stories are reported.
With the impressive growth of new types of media like Buzzfeed, Mashable and Vice, which have built their audiences predominantly through social media, editors are looking more and more at how ‘shareable’ their content is. For more traditional and new media alike, the key to reaching new audiences has become to publish articles that will be popular on social media. This is as true for The Independent – which in July launched i100, a platform ranking its articles by users’ votes that is heavily reliant on social media sharing – as it is for Buzzfeed.
Another example is The Guardian, which last year published a list of its 100 most popular articles. According to Digital Audience Editor Chris Moran, many made it into the list because they continued to gain attention through social media sharing long after their publication, occasionally ‘going viral’. What stands out is that the majority of those top 100 articles are the quirkier pieces about pop culture and odd facts from the world that characterise social media-oriented news sites like Buzzfeed.The second most popular article explores the “Top five regrets of the dying”; the seventh is a quiz: “Charlie Sheen v Muammar Gaddafi: whose line is it anyway?”.
This has fuelled the critique that the obsession with shareable content has serious implications for the kind of news which gets reported. For every Buzzfeed ‘proper news’ article, there are 50 more trivial pieces (“27 things that prove you’re from Sheffield”). Are traditional outlets simply responding to a commercial imperative in order to retain their serious edge? Or, if this trend consumes the likes of The Guardian, will we have lost another outlet for policy discussion and serious news?
In response, sites like Buzzfeed and Vice have undergone a rebrand to move away from quirky news and become legitimate news sources in their own right (Buzzfeed recently published its editorial and ethical code), but this should not be confused with an attempt to become the next Washington Post or BBC.
Their approach is instead to capture the unexplored angles of mainstream news, and cover underreported stories. Vice has been especially successful at this. Their exclusive reporting from inside the Islamic State is a notable example of a story that has topped the international news agenda for months, but which they have been able – somewhat fortuitously – to cover from a new angle. But ‘shareability’ remains a key goal and an important metric by which content is judged.
What does all this mean for the way news is reported?
Journalists are becoming motivated to make their content more ‘shareable’ in order to reach new audiences for their outlets and attract more interaction. This is having significant side effects, including steering the media towards featuring more video content, which outlets such as Foreign Policy magazine have recently pledged to do.
Until now, this new imperative in journalism has affected softer news stories more than coverage of major breaking news. But the possibility of this trend expanding to impact news at the top of the agenda and more traditional media establishments should not be excluded.