Storytelling Insight

“News for All” – Week Note 1

This week, I started a new job as News Innovation Research Fellow at Media Cymru & JoMeC. In practical terms, this is the mechanism for me to continue the R&D on journalistic storytelling that I’ve been doing for the past four years. The tentatively titled “News for All” Project is a collaboration with BBC News and will broadly focus on how we might tell different stories in different ways to provide more value to the many people who don’t currently get a value from journalism.

We’ll be sharing more details about the project in the next few weeks but, in an attempt to capture a little bit of the process and the evolution of my thinking, I’m going to document the project through a series of Week Notes. The aim of “working in the open” like this is to deliberately allow space for incomplete and imperfect thinking and to proactively invite suggestions for improvement or reflection. So, if you see something that you either love or hate, agree with or reject – I’d love to hear from you. You can get me at kulkarnis4@cardiff.ac.uk and I look forward to sharing and learning with you over the course of the project.

I was interested to read this Rolling Stone article about Fake Karen videos on TikTok this week. It was certainly a phenomenon that I’d become increasingly aware of in the last few months – viral videos apparently capturing candid footage of Karens being, well,  Karen-y. The thing is, almost all of them are staged, fake, acted – in other words content artificially created specifically to go viral and be monetised.

The article concludes that, in these fake Karen videos, “It’s the spectacle, above all else, that reigns supreme”, but for me that doesn’t get close to fully capturing the role these videos (and other similar content) now play in our culture.

There’s now a whole bunch of data around the role negative emotions play in driving engagement and it’s this aspect of the fake Karen videos that’s much more interesting to me. Handily, those ideas were explored in much more detail by David Dylan Thomas, in a talk called “No, Seriously, Fuck Engagement – Building a More Human Web”, that I had the pleasure of attending through the Design Justice Network. There was so much to love about the talk – that I can’t get into here but I’d recommend you watch if it sounds up your street – but I was particularly struck by this graph, which comes from a 5000 word letter on content governance written by Mark Zuckerberg.

As you can see, it shows (somewhat crudely)  that as content approaches the point where it’s prohibited, engagement spikes.

It gets even more interesting though, because as Zuckerberg himself put it, “Our research suggests that no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average – even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content”.

Now, if you’re a content farm making fake Karen videos, not only do you know that very well, but you’re rationally choosing to make content which benefits from that tendency, because that’s how you make money. 

The same principles probably apply to some of the many news organisations who still depend on a programmatic advertising model. In the short term at least (I’ll come back to that) the way you make money is by getting people to click on your content. Therefore, you may well tend to make content that approaches the kind of thing that’s even banned on Facebook, because that’s how you get paid…for now (I’m definitely going to come back to that).

However, things should probably get more complicated if, for example, you’re a public service broadcaster or a publication aiming to do public interest journalism. We run the risk of falling into a trap.

If we prioritise simple engagement – because that’s what our “competition” does and that’s what we’re competing with – then there’s at least a risk that the content is going to tend towards that prohibited content in exactly the same way as the fake Karen-merchants. It might not be fake Karens, but it might be covering immigration or gender or crime in a way that consciously or sub-consciously creates negative emotions – one of the drivers of that crude “engagement” we’re talking about. Hence, I think, the title of David’s talk – “No, Seriously, Fuck Engagement” is important here. Essentially we need to prioritise a connection with our audience that’s more subtle and nuanced.

Certainly the lesson for the work I’m doing is just how important it is to develop, understand and properly leverage new metrics that prioritise long-term relationships with citizens. There is already a lot of great and interesting work going on, like this partnership between URL Media and the Reynolds Journalism Institute exploring “the depth of engagement BIPOC media outlets have with their communities that is not solely based on stale media buying metrics rooted in scale”. Things like “satisfaction”, “action” and “connection” come up a lot in these conversations and those are the kinds of words I’m interested in.

I think what underlies a lot of the new thinking in this area is a shared understanding that we have to think much more long term if we want to make the case for journalism. Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s point that people tended to engage more with the content tending towards prohibited – “even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content”. If we want people to see the value of good journalism, into the long term, producing content that people don’t like can’t be the answer – even if it drives “engagement” in the short term.

Perhaps we also need to think about how much metrics actually tell us. They’re convenient, sure, but do they give us the answers we want, or the answers we need? Morten Ro wrote compellingly on this for The Fix recently – with the key message I took away being “Dashboards don’t Listen”. As Morten says, “Every act of practising our listening skills begins with stating the room for improvement. It’s a mindset and a practice that needs to permeate the newsroom culture in order to gain ground for creative solutions and attentive curiosity”.

That’s certainly the philosophy with which I’m approaching this work, and I look forward to sharing even more with you as the project develops.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.

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