What’s a press release again? News literacy questions prove complexity of media

Confusion abounds about newsroom practices, but then again, why wouldn’t it?

How it works: All self-respecting modern newsroom keyboards are equipped with special “news” buttons that automatically generate popular stories. Image: iStock.

I’m going to make a wild assumption that the group known as “people who read research reports about digital news” is almost entirely a subset of the group of “people somehow trying to make a living from digital news”.

Anecdotal evidence suggests most media consumers have not lost sleep about why 40 per cent of Irish people say they haven’t consumed any news-related videos in the past week. Nor is the average smartphone-clinger on the street overly tense about, say, the daily versus the monthly rate of podcast listenership or the industry sweet spot for mobile news alerts.

As the latest study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows, news consumers' grasp on how news is created and distributed can be hazy. The media may help shape the world, but the world is not as interested in the inner workings of newsrooms as it may flatter those of us who work there to think.

Asked who was typically responsible for writing a press release, some 36 per cent of the 2,007 Irish people surveyed correctly plumped for “a spokesperson for an organisation”. Some 21 per cent didn’t know, 7 per cent said “a lawyer for a news aggregator” (huh?) and 36 per cent went for either “a reporter” or “a producer” for a news organisation, which was either the wrong answer or something of a burn.


This was the first year that the digital news report produced annually by the Oxford University-based Reuters Institute dived into the question of news literacy, interpreting the concept as “knowledge about how news is made”, rather than as a set of skills that helps people be sceptical of what they see and hear and read (the more traditional definition).

Sobering reminder

But while its findings are a sobering reminder to (often institutionalised) journalists not to take “outside” understanding of their business for granted, they also show just how complicated that business can be.

Alongside the press release question, there was this curiously phrased one: "How are most of the individual decisions about what news stories to show people on Facebook made?"

The correct answer – picked by 28 per cent of Irish people – was deemed to be “by computer analysis of what stories might interest you”. In other words, it’s all the doing of Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm.

A third of people said they didn’t know, 10 per cent said it was random, 15 per cent said it was decided by the editors and journalists who work for news outlets and 14 per cent said it was Facebook-employed editors and journalists who determined what was shown.

It's not quite right to say there is no human intervention in news at Facebook

The question touches on a sensitive issue for Facebook and the industry. The tech giant has been at pains to insist it is not a media company or a publisher because of the regulation that might come with that label. It has been reluctant to take down “fake news” spread via its platform because that puts it too close to an “arbiter of truth” role that would be expensive for Facebook and unpalatable to just about everyone.

But it’s not quite right to say there is no human intervention in news at Facebook. The company has experimented with various fact-checking schemes operated by its media industry “partners”, while it recently sought to hire two “news credibility specialists” (later renamed “news publisher specialists”).

Neither are editors and journalists at news outlets as completely uninvolved in social media platforms as the Reuters Institute question implies. They choose which stories to post to their company Facebook pages. These “pushes” do not guarantee that every or even many of their page followers see each story – Facebook’s algorithm may work against them - but it is still an amplification tactic human editors have at their disposal.

The other option open to news outlets, of course, is to get their content off Facebook altogether.

Unsurprising misconception

Perhaps the most unsurprising misconception about today’s digital media industry, given grimly amusing statistical back-up by the Reuters Institute report, is that news outlets are making money from it.

Indeed, more than two-thirds of the 74,000 survey respondents from 37 countries were either unaware of the financial problems of the news industry or believed that most news organisations were making a profit from digital news.

You're saying Facebook is the enemy, right, but you want me to like your page on Facebook, too?

Why wouldn’t they think that? It’s not easy to tell a vibrant, competitive market from an overcrowded, unsustainable one. Surely news organisations would have to be out of their minds – or playing some dubious long game – to offer free and unlimited access to their product if all this was doing was racking up debts?

More than 1.2 million adults in the State will have access to a tablet by the end of the year, while the number with smartphones has already surpassed 1.6 million,

So you’re saying Facebook is the enemy, right, but you want me to like your page on Facebook, too?

No wonder everyone is confused.

While we’re on the subject of mistaken beliefs, here are a few things I’d like to make clear for my own sanity. No, I do not solve crimes in my spare time. Yes, I sometimes write the headline, but sometimes I don’t even see the headline. And no, I am not a Male Journalist Colleague’s PA, but let me cry with laughter for the rest of the day now at the idea that journalists have PAs.