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Taran March @ Quality Digest


Making News in the Facebook Age

Seems you can teach a new dog old tricks

Published: Thursday, January 12, 2017 - 12:00

There’s a lot of power and even nobility in the word “resolution.” But when it shows up accompanied by the trickster phrase “new year’s,” it's like a solemn king preceded by a capering jester. With every step we and our resolutions take into the year, it becomes harder to ignore the widening credibility gap.

I can already chalk up one wavering resolve, which took shape after reading an article shortly before we at Quality Digest took our end-of-year break. I tell you, I was fired up about it. It would be my first new year’s resolution for 2017, to write a blistering opinion piece on the matter. But at some point during the stretch between then and now, I misplaced that determination. Too much good cheer, I suppose. What follows is a more tempered, and probably more balanced, rendition.

The article, “Zuckerburg implies Facebook is a media company, just ‘not a traditional media company,’” highlighted comments made by Facebook’s founder during a live year-end chat with company COO Sheryl Sandberg. On the spot and off the cuff, Mark Zuckerburg didn’t do too badly. (Although he probably later regretted this head-scratcher: “If you’re pushing a new movement and that succeeded in the political movements in the U.S. or in Europe or in parts of Asia, even if you were on the side of that that was pushing for that, this is big change, and that’s an important thing for the world.”) For my part I was incensed by his blithe redefining of “media” and his company’s role in it.

You may recall there was a lot of coverage last month about fake news, electioneering, and the uncertainties of information technology that apparently have become our daily lot. Meanwhile at QD we’d reached the end of another long year, culminating in the high drama of a website redesign (which you can duly admire here). So when I ran across the article, I was in no mood for any more shape-shifting, of any sort. To me, it’s obvious what media is and what it isn’t, and that afternoon Zuckerburg’s empire did not make the grade in my universe. Here he is from the chat:

“And I think that, you know, when we think about what Facebook is doing in trying to give people a voice, one of the things that we are spending a lot of time reflecting on this year and I think going forward is that we have a big responsibility to make sure that these tools are used to create the most benefit for people around the world,” he said. “And, you know, Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company. It’s not a traditional media company…. We don’t write the news that people read on the platform. But at the same time, we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute news, and we’re an important part of the public discourse.”

Yes, news media have changed dramatically in the past decade, but certain elements in the process—call them journalistic product specifications—still need to be met to ensure a quality product. To ensure the product is even news and not something else entirely, like poetry, propaganda, or a grocery list. Lately there seems to be some slippage and outright confusion in that regard.

A short, contextual timeline: Last August the Facebook CEO, answering a question in Rome about the company’s status as a news purveyor, said, “No, we are a tech company, not a media company.” The distinction matters. Zuckerburg’s emphasis of technology allows his company to stay in the good graces of the Communications Decency Act, which states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

However, after a flurry of post-election reports about fake news, much of it dished up by spammers making use of the Facebook platform, the company announced a series of measures it hopes will curtail misreporting and related hoaxes. What are these measures? Oh, just some odds and ends from Journalism 101. This was followed by Zuckerburg’s “not a traditional media company” that caught my trawling eye. More recently, the company has announced the Facebook Journalism Project, a partnership with publishers to develop tools and features to enhnace publishers’ use of the site. The project also aims to further “news literacy” to train Facebook users to spot fake news.

So in the space of four months, Facebook executed a nimble and quite public about-face about its product. Admittedly, my first impulse was to sneer. Zuckerburg’s ramblings sounded like typical face-saving rhetoric, a positive spin meant to bolster the company’s image during the brief time anyone would be paying attention to the story.

But after thinking about it (and thereby jettisoning a perfectly good new year’s resolution), I have to say I admire the company’s response. We’ve come to take social media for granted, something inseparable from our morning coffee. We also tend to see Facebook’s challenges as an industry hybrid as its problem, not ours, the price of doing business in a breakneck age.

However, Facebook and other social media outlets indeed do much more than “just distribute the news.” The inevitable collision of technology, public opinion, and reporting we’ve seen is something that affects us all. It’s a quality issue, not much different from a defect in a critical component for an automobile or an unregulated kink in a supply chain. In all cases, defects create consequences. And since it’s an issue that’s not going away, it needs to be addressed.

To its credit, Facebook has responded to the tangle of ethics and free speech quickly and, let’s hope, effectively. Welcome to the traditional side of media, Mr. Zuckerburg, where judgment, fact-checking, and usually someone irritated with you are all in a day’s work.

Readers in the quality control space will relate to this all too well. Like manufacturing, media doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The what, how, and why of a news product’s creation all matter during its life cycle, and a news provider, no matter how cutting-edge, holds some responsibility for that product even after it’s released.

Let’s follow the metaphor a bit farther. Say a company has produced a brilliantly engineered and desirable product, a perfect solution to an existing need. The product finds its way to millions of eager consumers, where it becomes an accepted part of everyday life. It’s always to hand, and naturally both the company and consumers find other innovative ways to use it. Life is so good with this great product.

But then someone discovers a not-so-benign use for it, one the company hadn’t considered. “We make a good product,” declares the company’s CEO. “We don’t make the bad people who use it for shady purposes.” Alas for the company, and despite the CEO’s statement, it must now take responsibility for a problem created mainly due to the product’s success.

But fortunately for the company, precedents and solutions exist. A bit staid, maybe, for this innovative firm, but since it’s both flexible and interested in maintaining its successful position, it’s willing to give them a try. Before the week is out, it hires a small battalion of quality control professionals, who define and measure the problem, and suggest ways to control it.

What a smart company.


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is a retired editor for Quality Digest. A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities.