This country’s news outlets are endlessly proud of their exclusives, their brilliant analyses, their groundbreaking investigations and their great writing. Whether news consumers pick up on all these distinctions is another question. A new study from the Pew Research Center found that when survey respondents “followed a link to a news story … they provided a name 56% of the time,” on average. Another commentary on the commodification of news: Ten percent wrote in “Facebook” as a news outlet.
Over our years of roaming around political conferences, the Erik Wemple Blog commonly asks folks what outlets they rely on for news. “The Internet” has been a pretty common response. “I mean, like, CNN, ABC News, Fox News and such,” we’d reply, trying to steer the conversation toward news brands, with mixed results.
As the study itself notes, there are some large implications here. Recent months have seen the formulation of lists identifying purveyors of “fake news” — or, stories heavy on fabrications, exaggerations and propaganda that are mostly immune to correction. Alerting news consumers to such sources, however, is a bit pointless if people aren’t paying much attention to the source in the first place.
Don’t despair, says Melissa Bell, publisher of Vox Media. “More than half of the people can write down and identify what the news brands are — that’s a good sign,” says Bell, who oversees Vox Media’s eight digital brands, including the Verge, SB Nation, Eater and Vox. At the same time, says Bell, the industry should “definitely be worried” about shrinking that 44 percent figure. There’s an imperative, she argues, for being “stronger and smarter about letting people know who we are and what service we provide as different news organizations. We want people to know us and what they should be expecting from us.”
What the Internet lacks, says Bell, is the intuitive sense that people developed about the sources facing them on a grocery news rack. It’s understood that the tabloids in the checkout line carried “some sort of fake news.” Similar signposts on the Internet, though, haven’t materialized to the same degree. News-brand recognition, accordingly, is a key metric that Bell wants to boost. “I’m hopeful that we know that this is an issue now.”