Monday, January 31, 2011

Jason Davis: Transfer Rumors, The Guardian, and New Media's Race to the Bottom

A More Splendid Life takes pride today in welcoming the excellent Match Fit USA's Jason Davis, here to remind you why the dirt won't wash off after today's Transfer Deadline Day mayhem.

Ian Prior’s #guardianfail transgression, claiming an exclusive and then under-delivering with a rumor that even the orthodox Amish consider as common knowledge at this point, crystallizes how dependent the blogging community is on traditional media. As Richard pointed out in his reaction, the Twitter uproar that followed Prior’s “exclusive” occurred in part because The Guardian is one of the few outlets that can be trusted; bloggers whose business is repeating and/or analyzing the story of the day felt betrayed that a bastion of solid reporting like The Guardian would not only trade in un-sourced warmed-over rumor, but that it would build it up in such a cheap and unbecoming way.

Prior’s motivations aside (and it’s likely he just lost sight of the weight Twitter carries despite its immediacy and general light-hearted nature), #guardianfail stands out because it involves one of the few trustworthy Big Media sources left on the scene. The proliferation of rumor-as-news, a byproduct of Internet ubiquity and the disappearance of meaningful deadlines, has spawned a culture that rewards being first and rarely punishes being wrong. Pageviews, unlike newspaper subscriptions, aren’t seriously impacted by questions of integrity. Traffic is king, the audience is virtually unlimited and easily replaceable, and the temptation to take advantage of the minuscule modern attention span is too great. Why worry about what one says today when it will certainly be forgotten by tomorrow?

Prior’s tweeting took The Guardian into muddied waters where less reputable outlets usually wallow. Though they didn’t stoop to spreading a new spurious rumor seemingly conjured out of thin air, the paper created a anticipatory buzz around one everyone had heard, taking advantage of their loyal football readership in the process. An uncharacteristic dip in those muddy waters won’t lessen The Guardian’s prestige in the eyes of most, but the backlash proves something interesting: a good reputation engenders a uniquely visceral reaction from readers when they believe their faith has been betrayed. Being The Guardian, with all that masthead brings with it and the sense of journalistic impunity it conveys, is a doubled-edged sword. Perhaps most troubling, The Guardian’s carnival-barker bait-and-switch act shows that even the standard-bearers are now open to question and aren’t as immune to modern pressures as they might appear. One of the few institutions that remains above the morass voluntarily relegated itself to the status of bait artist. Disturbing, to say the least.

The burden of skepticism is shifting from those gathering the news to those consuming it. Previous generations could assume, with a reasonable measure of certainty, that the stories in their daily paper had been sourced, confirmed, fact-checked and edited before they were deemed worthy of publication. If a broadsheet claimed that a club was interested in a specific player, it was because someone in a position of authority with the club told a reporter directly that it was so. If a transfer was reported, it was because it people with direct knowledge and a stake in the process confirmed it. There was plenty of tabloid sensationalism, but it was clearly understood to be more entertainment than a faithful telling of the news, and hence easily categorized. We knew what was legitimate and what (probably) wasn’t. Our expectations never needed adjustment. We took for granted that we could believe what we read.

Newspapers, in their digital incarnations, are forced to compete with blog collectives, content farms - and to a lesser extent, independent blogs - for readership. Original reporting is at a premium, yet papers find themselves on equal footing with SEO savvy start-ups. Google’s mysterious algorithms don’t discriminate between “traditional” and “new”, nor can they distinguish original reporting from something that is nothing more than a rewrite and a link. As long as it can be “sourced”, parroting news gathered by someone else (who presumably incurs the cost of doing so) is good business in the Internet age. Whether the information is verified happening or baseless rumor has no bearing on the decision to post it. If it will generate traffic, it goes up with little thought.

The lines have blurred to the point of being indistinguishable. Even legitimate media outlets have joined the ever-growing number of blogs in trading in gossip while hiding behind headlines prefaced with “Report:’ or written as a questions (Joe Player to Club X?) or by creating delineated rumor areas of their websites. As rumors emanating from a singular anonymous or questionable source replicate across the Web, appearing on site after site and blog after blog, they mutate into something else. American midfielder Michael Bradley’s recent move is a perfect example; after his German club confirmed that they had accepted a bid for his services but would not reveal from whom, rumors began to swirl that the club in question was Turkish giant Galatasaray. Rather than simply report what was confirmed, both blogs and traditional outlets, in a mad race to attract visitors hungry for the latest scuttlebutt, capitalized on the rumor by “reporting” that Bradley was headed to Istanbul. When that proved to be an incorrect or premature assumption (he’s going to Aston Villa), it didn’t matter because the responsibility for standing by the information didn’t rest with site or blog repeating it. They simply posted again, providing the new and contradictory information as an “update” to their original “story.” Reporting on a report (or Tweet, or garbled translation) means never having to answer for its veracity.

Most of the gatekeepers have abandoned their posts. The few that remain are being overrun, helpless to slow the onslaught of dubious hearsay that makes its way into the general conversation. Skepticism, which for the professional media means costly man hours contacting sources and confirming details, is a heavy a burden to carry when much of the the competition is free to spin the work of others to its own benefit. What’s important has changed so fundamentally that applying old standards is almost farcical.

Basic economics tells us that supply and demand dictate a market. In the case of the modern Internet-driven transfer rumor mill (and really, the Internet as a whole), an insatiable public demands information for which they don’t directly pay (outside of unique paywall cases like The Times, which, because it cut itself off from the information-sharing Internet culture at large, is marginalized on this front). That makes for a strange system, controlled not by how good the product is as journalism, but by how many people can be enticed into clicking a link. Whether that comes by bellowing “EXCLUSIVE” to build interest or by re-posting every rumor imaginable, the effect is the same: writers forgoing their responsibility, forcing readers forced to suss the reputable from inane with nothing to go on but reputation of the outlet. When even that is open to question, the information isn’t worth the electricity needed to convey it to our screens.

Does that necessarily mean the system is broken? It’s easy to suggest that outlets like The Guardian should be above the hyping and spreading of questionable rumor; more difficult is conceiving or reasons for them to do so beyond an obligation to the paper’s legacy. They should be held to a higher standard, but we shouldn’t be shocked if they, like everyone else, are blown off course by the prevailing winds.

If transfer rumor is entertainment and nothing more, none of this matters. But as long as it is presented as news, and a waiting public consumes it as such, the question of where the burden of skepticism should lie is germane to the further discussion of what role the traditional media will play in the future of news consumption.

Especially when it comes to transfer rumors.


elliott said...

Great stuff,

The internet has created an Old Western frontier town of information where its buyer beware in every corner.

It's sad that the internet has created a race to the bottom, but arguably the transfer-rumor articles existed pre-SEO mills.

Jason Davis said...

They did, and their appeal is and always has been undeniable. The difference is that spreading them as a matter of course is acceptable to the end user.

Only a few places, like The Guardian for example, can't get away with playing that game. The amount of trust we put in an outlet is unaffected by how many rumors they repeat because those outlets create the illusion of separation. We accept the re-posting of ridiculous rumor because the rumor itself is no longer the "news", the original act of disseminating it is.

In other words, the subject isn't "Player X to Team Y", it's "Newspaper Z Reports Player X to Team Y". That gives everyone free reign to spread anything they come across under the guise of due diligence.