Online Journalism Has A Behavioral Science Problem

When it comes to climate change, our biggest problem isn’t the science. It is ourselves.

(Don’t worry, I’ll get to the online journalism shortly.)

Five years ago, I had the privilege of training with Al Gore as a Climate Project Ambassador. We studied the data. We learned about the modeling. We got drilled on public speaking techniques. And yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of people who care deeply about what’s happening to our planet and recognize fully that we can’t continue the way we’re going, we still seem to be a long way from any kind of real solution.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with consensus of the scientific community, and everything to do with our extreme limitations as human beings. We are asking people to change behavior (one of the hardest things to do), based on a large-scale, abstract, far-away problem, on which our individual effort will have minimum impact and from which our individual effort will receive minimal feedback. This is counter to pretty much everything we know about the way human beings work.

At this point, we don’t need more climate scientists. We need behavioral scientists. Marketers. Political strategists. Trend-setters. We need inventors working on solutions and -- almost more important -- entrepreneurs who can commercialize those solutions at scale. These are the people who need to be at the front line of this issue right now.

Online journalism faces a similar problem. Revenues from any kind of decent journalism -- independent, nuanced, thorough, thoughtful -- are on the decline, largely because that kind of content will never be as popular as pictures of cats sitting awkwardly. Where the eyeballs go, so too goes the money, and publishers are forced further and further into the business of schlock content, expressly manufactured to shock and awe.

But we’ve taken it a step further. Because schlock content doesn’t drive enough advertising on its own, the savior of the industry now appears to be native advertising: ads designed to look like legitimate editorial. You probably know all about this, and have likely seen John Oliver’s recent dissection of the practice.

Oliver is completely right. Native advertising is not just morally dubious. It endangers our ability to be discerning consumers of content, and further threatens access to quality journalism by undermining the credibility of all journalism, rendering anything substantive even more unprofitable.

Industry leaders objected to Oliver’s rant, of course; Sergey Denisenko, CEO of native advertising company MGIDA, wrote an open letter to him singing the praises of native advertising (a letter that was ably and hilariously skewered by my MediaPost colleague Bob Garfield). But the back-and-forth of Oliver-Denisenko-Garfield focuses on the merits, or lack thereof, of the practice.

And yet we are complicit; we wouldn’t be in this mess if we didn’t keep clicking on headlines like, “Housewife’s trick to look younger makes doctors furious.” As with climate change, we are our own worst enemies.

Investigative reporting, unbiased coverage of global issues, deep explorations of science, the arts, and humanity -- these help us navigate our world, promote understanding and empathy, and perform as active participants in our democracy. They are essential to a well-functioning and sophisticated society, and they will never get as many clicks as 27 hilarious gifs of puppies falling down stairs. Just because we don’t click on them as much as we should doesn’t mean we don’t need them.

What is needed now is a shift in framing, in focus, in branding. We need a new model for quality journalism that doesn’t require it to compete with Kimye for clicks. This, then, is what is called for: people who marry the behavioral understanding of the clickbaiters and the native advertisers with an appreciation of the necessity for content of substance. People who can develop creative funding solutions that don’t undermine the very raison d’etre of the work itself. People who see the current system for what it is, and are able to envision and communicate a new way.

These are the people who need to be at the front line of this issue right now. Our ability to operate as an informed society depends on it.

Recommend (6) Print RSS
3 comments about "Online Journalism Has A Behavioral Science Problem".
  1. Nicholas Fiekowsky from (personal opinion) , August 15, 2014 at 2:19 p.m.
    Climate change may be more an issue of inconvenient facts than a communication or commitment challenge. The scientific consensus is that temperatures have risen in the past 100 years, and that humans have some role in that rise. There isn't consensus on what portion of temperature rise is due to human activity, or CO2 contribution. Climate models are less persuasive since few if any forecast the 15-18 year "pause" we've been experiencing. Finally, it's hard for those on the fence to invest in a position which meets counter-arguments with name-calling, ad hominem attacks and lawsuits rather than structured debates.
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 15, 2014 at 2:51 p.m.
    In a distant world far far away, the future became now in a flash and demonic fantasy became reality. No one could tell the difference. Insurance....The human moral high ground disintegrated right in front of the climate change deniers eyes and they lost control. They all thought freedom was free. ....taken from history books in another galaxy about earth. vine, vinci, fugu
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 15, 2014 at 2:52 p.m.
    That's fugi spell check changed it.