For the past few weeks I’ve been mulling over the topic of Facebook as a news source. This mulling was sparked by the recent accusation that Facebook was blocking more conservative posts from its members’ feeds. Although I’d classify myself as active on social media I would not characterize myself as a heavy FB user, but I cannot deny that FB is a driving force in contemporary life.
But as a heavy consumer of news, this provoked me into thinking more critically about how news is packaged now. I began by looking at Random House Webster’s College Dictionary’s definition of journalism:
journalism: (1) the occupation of gathering, writing, editing and publishing or broadcasting news. (2) newspapers and magazines; the press. (3) a course of study for a career in journalism. (4) material written for a newspaper or magazine. (5) writing marked by a popular slant.
Then I added the Five (Plus One) Questions of Journalism that I learned in school:
WHO? WHAT? WHERE? WHEN? WHY? and HOW?
Although many FB users like the ability to share personal content with both their friends and in some cases, the public at large, Facebook is a business and the reason its platform is “free” is because its users have a value to their business. I respect that Facebook is a business model and the positive elements it brings to its users’ personal and professional lives, but I don’t give it any higher, altruistic attributes.
Facebook evolved from a cool way for college students to engage with a defined population into a global tool for people (with internet access) to share personal content. That personal content shapes and drives what you see, and it is driven primarily by those mystical algorithms. The recent news kerfuffle revealed by Gizmodo is that there are humans (primarily young, East-coast educated humans) who curate the news feeds, and while this isn’t surprising from an employment standpoint it does make me consider what the employer’s motivation is in regard to this staff.
And then I remembered the Three Big Questions of Marketing:
1. Why do you do it?
2. How do you do it?
3. Why should we care?
But if Facebook considers itself a news source shouldn’t it be held to as high a standard as news outlets? Recently I read an op-ed letter that described Facebook’s news feed as akin to getting your news out of a gumball machine. Although that resonated with me I’d be more inclined to describe it as getting your news from one of those arcade games where you crank a crane over the stuffed animal of your choice before you drop it. You may not get THAT animal but you’ll get something. Since Facebook is using “likes” and “friends” to drive the feed the reader will never know what s/he DOESN’T see. There’s nothing inherently wrong with click bait and recommended content, but I have a problem with the limits on “why” is it selected for you.
When you buy a newspaper or visit a news-specific site there is visible paid advertising, so why is that any different from Facebook? I don’t necessarily read every article in a newspaper or every ad, but the people who run the newspaper make it very clear which content is which. They even make it clear when they aren’t just giving me the facts; such as the Op-Ed page where they invite folks with differing opinions to share them. And maybe that’s where I get hung up. I don’t want anyone to presume that because I liked something once, that’s the limit of everything I like. I may be open to liking something new and different, but the only way you’d know that is if you get to know me. And getting to know me is a privilege earned by your professional behavior.
But let’s get back to journalism, which is what I’m calling “news” for this exercise. Most adults realize that although journalists should be unbiased professionals many of the organizations who employ them have a distinct slant. I try to read from as many news outlets as I can and pay attention to the bylines. I follow news organizations on Twitter — and that has sped up my own personal news cycle in terms of delivering breaking news. But there is something warmed-over about Facebook news — like it’s pre-digested. Sometimes news is like a punch to the gut. When it’s bad news it will sadden you or even make you shake with rage. News shouldn’t be trying to sell you on something. Its first purpose is to inform you, its higher purpose it to enlighten you, but its most noble purpose is to make you uncomfortable.
Facebook’s purpose is to get your eyes to linger as long as possible so somebody somewhere can figure out how to sell you something. It is far from FB’s best interest to make you feel like logging off (which may also explain why trolling and negative behavoir get a lot of attention). I enjoy a good cat video as much as the next guy, but until cats can get press credentials I’ll get my news from the journalists.