In the economy of attention, the loudest voice is not necessarily the most important

by Natalia Smolentceva
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

In a time when media are constantly fighting for clicks, attention has already become the new currency. Readers online are constantly bombarded with provocative headlines, listicles and viral content.

However, the loudest voice is not necessarily carrying the most important message. Instead of constantly shouting, it is worth it to make a bid for building trust with audiences, argued the speakers on a panel about the economy of attention at the re:publica digital festival in Berlin.

In this fight for readers’ attention, media face a dilemma of two core principles, explained Bernhard Pörksen, media science professor at Tübingen University. On the one hand, there is the principle of popularity; many publications tend to orient themselves toward what their audience wants to read, resulting in a “serve what they like” strategy. The other is the paternalistic principle, referring to the media’s desire to provide people with the information that the media deems important.

“I believe neither of these two principles can stand alone, and we should strive for a balance between them,” said Pörsen.

The ways in which we deal with the issue of attention differs a lot when we compare traditional media and social media, said Barbara Hans, editor-in-chief of SPIEGEL ONLINE.

“In social media, the user is a benchmark,” she said. “Without users, there wouldn’t be social media.”

However, social media users face the well-known problem of filter bubbles, which are not meant to enlighten them, but rather to confirm their already existent worldview. Editorial offices, on the contrary, strive to bring new and crucial material to their readers.

“The job of the journalist is to confront the reader and puzzle them with the things they didn’t know were important for them, that they didn’t know even existed,” says Hans. “If we as the media constantly shout at our readers, we will lose not only our credibility, but also the opportunity to listen and learn from them.”

BuzzFeed Germany political editor, Marcus Engert, used the example of Facebook to show how media outlets have been adapting their content to keep up in the constant race for attention online. From introducing Instant Articles to encouraging video, social media platforms like Facebook determine what type of content will be more likable and viewable by their users.

BuzzFeed is famous for its mix of viral content like cat videos and listicles combined with serious in-depth political analysis. This has been quite a successful strategy for getting readers’ attention.

“[At BuzzFeed’s political section] we don’t copy entertainment recipes, we learn from them,” said Engert.

An in-depth political piece doesn’t get as many clicks as a one-minute viral video — but that has more to do with the audience’s attention span and not the nature of the content, he said. He also explained that serious articles don’t need to be difficult to read or void of pictures.

Loudness doesn’t just refer to clickbait headlines; it also refers to the speed of news production. When the media becomes so focused on breaking a story that they publish news that hasn’t been properly fact-checked, they contradict the principles of good journalism and show that they “do not take their readers seriously, because they think they can give [their readers] whatever,” said Engert.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that the recipe for success in the digital age is to stay committed to the core principles of journalism: prove first, publish second; use several sources; remain transparent; and others.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Jeremy Yap. Second image courtesy of Natalia Smolentceva.