No doubt you’ve seen the commotion about how Facebook picks stories for its Trending section after several former workers said they were told not to feature certain news sites. Makes for an interesting headline about Facebook suppressing conservative news blogs, but I had a different reaction.
- First, it’s Facebook. It’s not a news website. It’s a social network that also has news.
- They have a right to feature whatever they want on their site.
- I never even noticed the Trending section before.
It got me thinking, though, about the role social media is playing in news discovery. We know people find news on Facebook. Lots of it.
A Knight Foundation study shows 63% of Facebook and Twitter users say Facebook “serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.”
So it’s clear Facebook can play a significant role in shaping how people feel about the news.
But let’s go beyond that. In newsroom all across America, every day someone is shaping the news by deciding what stories to cover, what stories to feature, who to interview, and how much time and effort to give it. They are professional journalists and editors and for years, we have trusted them and their companies to make good decisions on our behalf. They were indeed curators of news before the term became popular in the digital era. We trusted them.
We also know that trust has eroded. We routinely see studies that rank news sources low on the trust scale. The latest poll I found, from Media Insight Project in April, 2016 reported just 6% of people have “a lot of confidence” in the media.
Facebook is different though. News is an intrusion in an entertainment and social medium. It feels like it should be self-regulating. The things that are the most popular should get shared the most. Whether it’s stupid cat videos or uprisings in the Middle East. Whatever people are talking about, sharing, and engaging with should get more play. And, because Facebook wants you to spend time with them, the things you care most about (i.e. engage with the most) should help them predict what other things you’d like. Isn’t that the whole idea?
Still, I wanted to put aside my feelings and beliefs because it made me think not about what a journalist would expect from a news organization or a social media network, but what do the customers think should be done?
Would people like it better if there was a National News Editor for Facebook feeds? Or would they prefer no human intervention at all and just let popularity dictate what you see?
A national poll done by Morning Consult gives us an indication of how people feel about that issue. For social media, it found that 31% said “reader interest” should determine what news stories show up on social vs. 11% who say editors should pick. It’s quite a bit different from what they think is happening right now.
Those polled also weighed in on what they think is happening at traditional media companies and what they think should happen. 26% said “reader interest” should dictate coverage with 33% saying a blend of interest and editor discretion. Only 15% thought editors alone should pick. Compare that to what they think is happening and you see the differences. They believe 36% of the material is picked by editors and only 13% by reader interest.
It’s not just social media that they think is doing it wrong. It’s the traditional media companies, too. That takes us back full circle to the old argument about telling people what they need to know or what they want to know… and who is the best judge of what they need? Oh, and who is qualified to make that decision.
Here’s my unsolicited advice to Facebook.
Either change the Trending tab to be 100% based on popularity, or hire a national editor to curate the top stories as Facebook sees it. Either way, be transparent. And maybe think about updating your explanation: here’s what posted today about how Facebook picks stories for Trending. It says nothing about human intervention.
As for traditional media, we’ve got a lot of work to do to regain the public trust. But you already knew that.