In my previous article, I discussed the challenges that journalism faces in reclaiming its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Journalism needs to move past its former “breaking news” model of delivering information to people. Rather than appealing to only the emotive side of human nature by delivering shocking news, journalism needs to figure out how it can tap into people’s desire for truth, so that people choose to consume news that challenges their viewpoints and enhances their understanding and appreciation of the world. Furthermore, it needs to challenge the formation of echo-chambers on the internet, where people are stuck in. This is certainly a tall order in these tough times. But still, many brave companies have come forward with their visions for how they can revolutionise the relationship that people have with technology and information — so we seek truth more than lies. Here are two of them:
Image credit: https://thecorrespondent.com/
1. The Correspondent
The Correspondent began in Amsterdam, where it rolled out an ad-free, subscriptions-based news model — to resounding success. Now, the Dutch news company is looking to bring its unique model to the English-speaking world. What’s most interesting about The Correspondent is how it earns the loyalty of its readers, to spur them to financially support their company. The journalists of The Correspondent keep a public notebook detailing their process in writing and researching the article they wish to write in their newspaper. For instance, a journalist would use their public notebook to describe the process of finding reliable informers, how they used databases to sift for accurate statistics, or even how conducting research into the issue led the journalist to change their mind about it.
The idea is ingenious, as it kills multiple birds with one stone. Firstly, it creates an opportunity for readers to learn journalists’ methods of uncovering the truth — how they find reliable sources, weigh evidences against each other, and let go of appealing but fallacious beliefs in the midst of investigation.
Secondly, it inspires trust in journalists and their work, as readers have a transparent view of the process through which journalists write and research their article.
Thirdly, it helps readers see the massive amounts of love and labour that journalists put into research — before they even write a single word for their article. This is especially valuable for investigative journalism which often takes years to complete. With a more profound understanding of the amount of energy it takes for journalists to write their articles, readers would be more motivated to fund the work of journalists.
Finally, the public notebooks also serve as a record of the directions that journalists have taken in investigating an issue. Thus, journalists from The Correspondent actively invite readers to point out gaps in their research, or to suggest new leads for journalists to follow up on. This would not only improve the quality of the journalism, but also make readers feel more invested in their work.
2. Talk: A Commenting Platform by the Coral Project
The comment section used to be a place of infinite possibilities — a marketplace of ideas where individuals could engage in lively debate and exchange ideas and opinions with their fellows. But these days, most comment sections are clogged with mainly inane observations or childish insults. There is little to no discussion, just angry individuals shouting past each other.
Arguably, the design of comment systems plays a role in determining the level of meaningful discussion in comment sections. For instance, YouTube comment sections are arguably the worst, as its algorithm pushes comments that get the most replies to the top (see: "Why are YouTube comments the worst on the internet?"). This has the perverse effect of rewarding the most controversial comments that are most likely to provoke outraged comments, rather than insightful comments promoting slow, thoughtful discussion. Meanwhile on Reddit, short, funny comments tend to get the most votes.
Thus, it is clear that it is a tricky task to design a commenting system that rewards good behaviour. Which is why I tip my hat off to The Coral Project, which has attempted to design a better commenting system known as Talk for news websites to embed into their article.
Overall, Talk stands out to me because of two features. Firstly, Talk gives news websites the option to replace the “like” button on their commenting systems with a “respect” button. Why “respect”? This is because a study gathering data from more than 700 people found that “respondents seeing a ‘Respect’ button clicked on more comments in a comment section,” and furthermore, that “respondents seeing a ‘Respect’ button clicked on more comments from another political perspective.” (see: Engagement Buttons – Center for Media Engagement). This makes sense, as this word change reframes the way commenters think about what they should value in online discussion. Rather than liking comments that one already agrees with, the subtle word change nudges commenters to look out for and appreciate viewpoints that they may disagree with, but which are thoughtfully articulated.
Secondly, Talk accepts that it is necessary to moderate and delete comments that are spammy or offensive. In fact, it has specifically designed its system to make it easy for moderators to delete comments. Critics might accuse Talk of encouraging censorship and creating echo chambers. Talk might respond by pointing out that a marketplace of ideas — where individuals share and learn from opposing ideas — will only work if people can actually hear each other. But these days, comment sections are clogged with offensive comments that turn off those looking for a serious discussion. Deleting such offensive comments might be the lesser of two evils.
Admittedly, Talk is still an imperfect commenting system. Some news websites like the Washington Post have missed the point of some of Talk’s design features by using a ‘like’ button instead of the ‘respect’ button in the system. Furthermore, it is still up to journalists to make use of the platform and interact with their readers in the comment section. For instance, research at the Engaging News Project found that uncivil comments declined by 15 percent when journalists interacted with the post by posting an average of four comments. But despite Talk’s limitations, I find it to be an important step forward in applying science and psychology to make comment sections a better place.
All in all, by unpacking and examining the process through which we seek out the truth, these two companies have uncovered little “levers” which they can push, to nudge readers to think critically, and empathetically. While seemingly insignificant, the power of multiple “levers” brought to bear on an individual’s thinking process can alter his or her behavior.
Just like how Archimedes declared that the impossible feat of lifting the world could be accomplished if a single man were given a long enough lever and a fulcrum, small media companies, when equipped with knowledge of their reader’s psyche, can change the world entirely.