Interesting and Timeless
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The perils of whiplash journalism: Lessons from the Amazon

In chasing the news, there’s always the danger of missing the story, and the recent Amazon rainforest fires prove an unwelcome reminder that it’s all too easily done.

The sudden increase in fires in Brazil set off a storm of international outrage, prompting celebrities, environmentalists, political leaders, and other influential public figures to express their concern on social media and demand action from the authorities. Although the rise of public engagement regarding the issues of climate change is refreshing, there is evidence that the news was relentlessly sensationalized.

We hear a lot about fake news, fact-checking and media literacy, and though it’s something that’s often connected to political issues, it’s clearly more widespread than that. 

The Amazon’s unwieldy environmental situation begs the question: how can publishers keep important stories in the news cycle and engage readers without resorting to exaggeration and histrionics? 

A picture is worth a thousand words (but needs sharing with care)

The bulk of the photos that flooded social media feeds weren’t fact-checked before being posted, further fuelling public opinion that the situation is far more chaotic than it may be in reality. 

For example, the photo Christiano Ronaldo posted on his profile (which amassed millions of likes, comments, and shares) was actually taken in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon basin, in 2013. However, he’s not the only one posting something that’s not entirely relevant. The actor Leo DiCaprio, and French President Macron – both passionate advocates of environmental betterment – both shared a photo which was later confirmed to be over 2 decades old. Interestingly enough, some celebrities even shared photos of completely different parts of the world, including Montana, India, or Sweden, to name a few. And it’s not just the general reading public who are susceptible.

The consequence was brutal, so much that the proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ could take on a more literal meaning. An international wave of disinformation was generated around the fires in the Amazon region – a crisis that was already serious enough by itself. Regardless of the well-intended outpouring of support, the main problem was that there was no specific, underlying context attributed to these photos, leading people to form their own conclusions to the imagery that was deeply emotive.

A great soundbyte ignores an inconvenient truth

Although CNN and The New York Times debunked the photos and misinformation about the fires with an explanation that ‘deforestation is neither new nor limited to one nation,’ both publications repeated the claim that the Amazon is the ‘lungs’ of the world, with an argument that ‘its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming.’

The soundbyte – perhaps – reigns supreme. Certainly it’s memorable phrasing.

And yet, one of the world’s leading Amazon forest experts, Dan Nepstad, begs to differ. “It’s bullshit,” he hinted not-so-subtly in an interview for Environmental Progress. “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash. In other words, there’s tremendous oxygen produced by forest but when a tree dies it uses that for respiration.” 

But the ‘lungs’ myth is just the tip of the iceberg. CNN devoted a segment with the banner, ‘Fires Burning at Record Rate in Amazon Forest’ while a leading climate reporter claimed that “the current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.” The truth is, even though the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018 (as of August 22), it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago, according to Nepstad, whose claims are backed by the INPE. The NASA-funded NGO Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) shows 2018 as an unusually low fire year compared to historic data from 2004–2005 which are years showing nearly double the number of counted fires.

One of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists – Leonardo Coutinho – also agrees that media coverage of the fires has been exaggerated. “What is happening in the Amazon is not exceptional,” said Coutinho. “Take a look at Google web searches search for ‘Amazon’ and ‘Amazon Forest’ over time. Global public opinion was not as interested in the ‘Amazon tragedy’ when the situation was undeniably worse. The present moment does not justify global hysteria.”

So the debate, the contentions, the controversy rumbles on. What’s for certain is that while the consensus may be hard to find, a little context may be the most important thing of all.

We have a problem: without context, news is just noise

Many of the correspondents reporting on the Amazon fires have been doing so from the cosmopolitan cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – some 2,500 miles or four hours by jet plane away. This raises a lot of questions: how can they provide context to their readers without having real-time information as to what is really going on? How could they write relevant and accurate stories if they haven’t seen and studied the repercussions of fires themselves? And even if they were at the scene of the fires, what happens after the cameras leave?

According to The New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin, failure to provide context is called whiplash journalism. Context helps sort out marginalized views from counterclaims worthy of consideration on various aspects of environmental issues. “One of the grand challenges facing newsrooms covering complicated emergent, enduring issues like tropical deforestation,” said Revkin, “is finding ways to engage readers without histrionics. The alternative is ever more whiplash journalism — which is the recipe for reader disengagement.”

However, journalists are also faced with unrealistic and unsustainable expectations in terms of output, resulting in reports devoid of proper context or dependence on peer-reviewed, scientific journals for the weekly ‘news’. At the moment, the industry has done very little to address the issue of news hyper-production. Instead, journalists remain pressured to keep up with the never-ending onslaught of information, tasked to push out as much content as possible, as quickly as possible. 

If we take a look at Twitter, for example, approximately 500 million Tweets are chirped out into the world each day, making it hard to differentiate between what is important and factual, and what isn’t. That’s a lot of noise – for readers and journalists. Tools such as Dataminr are increasingly being used to filter out this cacophony, acting – as USA Today’s Deputy Managing Editor, Mary Nahorniak, puts it – “as a really fast, really important tip sheet”. These kind of real-time information discovery platforms are indispensable for newsrooms, already dealing with peak content.

That’s a coping mechanism for those delivering the news. What about those on the receiving end?

Does your readership suffer from information overload? Ever considered changing their news diet?

According to the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, there is evidence that some people are avoiding the news or are worn out by the sheer amount of breaking news these days. Fortunately, information overload has fuelled new, burgeoning initiatives around the concept of ‘slow news’ (De Correspondent, Zetland, Republik, Tortoise Media etc) and constructive or solutions-based journalism (HuffPo, BBC World Hacks).

Born out of frustration at the quality of journalism from the mainstream press, the founders of these initiatives argue that traditional news models and approaches are broken, inconsequential and amplified without much explanation. In order to tackle this issue, they are looking to respond with more meaningful, inclusive, and less relentlessly negative coverage – often developed in closer collaboration with audiences.

James Harding, Katie Vanneck-Smith and Matthew Barzun, the co-founders of new publishing venture, Tortoise, explained the nature of slow journalism, saying that the goal is not about breaking news, but what’s driving the news. On their Kickstarter campaign to grow their membership community, they emphasize that, “we don’t cover every story, but reveal a few. We take the time to see the fuller picture, to make sense of the forces shaping our future, to investigate what’s unseen,” which is an encouraging perspective on today’s fast-paced journalism.

At the same time, other media companies are looking to respond to the gap identified here between updateness and understanding. Take for example Vox Media, who have built a formidable reputation for explanatory journalism, an approach that particularly resonates with younger people looking to understand complex issues of the world. Many traditional media companies have adopted a similar approach (BBC Reality Check), while others are looking to attract people through a less traditional agenda, often using new formats and voices (BuzzFeed, Vice).

How do you give better value to readers?

A good story is about a topic the audience decides is interesting or relevant. A great story, however, often does both by using storytelling to make important news compelling to read and understand. 

Finding and verifying important or fascinating information is the lifeblood of good journalism. After all, well-considered and thoroughly researched stories are part of what makes journalism different and more valuable than any other content in the media universe.

According to American Press Institute, research proves two things about good stories (with our own little commentary):

  • Treatment trumps topic. The way a story is told is far more important to the audience than the topic itself. The best stories are well-told tales about something the reader personally feels is relevant or significant.
  • The best stories are more complete and more comprehensive. Quality journalist content contains a multitude of verified information from various sources with different viewpoints. Not only is that a sign of expertise, but it also builds trust.

The story of 2019 Amazon rainforest fires certainly revealed weaknesses in the process of today’s fast-paced journalism. It seems that it’s a case of a rushed story being reported without sufficient facts, and shared by people who have a perceived authority (di Caprio) and social media klout but aren’t journalists who are able to fact-check and confirm sources. It will be interesting to see how the ‘slow news’ brigade chooses to report on this after a little time has elapsed.

Maybe then will the story be finally told like it is – with proper context and facts checked. 

by Marko Dorić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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