Navigating the Relationship Between Big Tech & Journalism

Canada might be next to adopt a media legislation similar to Australia’s that could resurrect the struggling news industry. Sounds great, right? But what’s a stake if we tie journalism to big tech?

Illustration by Kristen Cussen

When used correctly, social media is a powerful tool used by journalists to crowd-source information, access elite contacts and interact directly with audiences. But at its core, Big Tech is designed for monetization, not to improve journalism or democracy. It’s a happy accident of sorts, and other times, it’s a newsroom’s worst nightmare.

It’s impossible to deny the benefits of Zoom interviews, citizen footage of breaking news and the ability to gauge audience metrics in real-time. Even before the pandemic, reporting stories without leaving the newsroom was common practice. But there comes a time when someone has to ask — just because it can be done, should it? And at what point are we compromising journalistic integrity for a tiny slice of ad revenue.

With Facebook considered one of Canada’s top news sources, it’s clear that journalism is tightly tethered to social media, causing the never-ending game of keep up. The competition is no longer exclusive to other media organizations. It’s social platforms, influencers, whoever can yell the loudest and most importantly, ad giants like Google now calling the shots.

However, Canadian Heritage Minister, Steven Guilbeault is in the process of copying the frame work of a recent Australian media legislation that could force Facebook and Google to pay publishers for content. But digital culture has created new pitfalls for the journalism industry.

The fact is, Big Tech doesn’t just hurt newsroom cash-flow, it influences the average user’s news consumption, the stories journalists tell and how they tell them.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, senior fellow with Massey college at University of Toronto and veteran journalist, says time is just one of many aspects of journalism distorted by digital culture.

Illustration by Kristen Cussen.

“How do we maximize contextual journalism at a time when there are economical and competitive pressures on all media,” he says. “So that means journalists, especially in local news, end up doing what I call the low hanging fruit of daily news, which is weather, traffic and crime.”

While these are necessary parts of daily news, Dvorkin notes that the source for each one is usually a press release or even a tweet from Environment Canada, the Ministry of Transportation and police departments. There’s just no room, budget or time to dive deeper.

“These are three government sources. How are you able to say to the cops, ‘well, wait a minute, I’m not sure you’re telling me the right story,’” Dvorkin says. “Meanwhile, your assignment editor back in the newsroom is saying ‘you’ve been on the story for two hours — where the hell is it?’”

But efficiency is only one measurement of effectiveness and when assignments are reduced to speed, they just don’t reflect the magnitude of Canadian conversations throughout the country. A journalist may be able to file multiple stories a day, interview a source remotely, but the importance of on-site reporting should not be ignored.

Even though it’s easier than ever to find contacts, Michael Geist, the Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, and popular source for commenting on Canadian media law, says many sources like himself write about their topic of interest on their own time.

“Respectfully, a lot of times, we’re getting the press release aspect of whatever the part of the news story is. And then we’re getting a series of quotes strung together from different people,” he says. “Frankly, on many issues, you can just consult blogs or other kinds of sources, where the people providing the quote are actually giving a more detailed, extensive analysis of what’s taking place.”

But newsrooms aren’t just using the internet to find sources and story ideas. They also rely on a platform’s users to act as ‘paperboys’ sharing content.

“They’ve benefited significantly from social media platforms in generating traffic, which allows them obviously to sell subscriptions and generate more ad revenue,” Geist says.

Still, low budgets ripple into shallow reporting that may generate traffic, but won’t land permanent subscribers. “There are news organizations making money through their online presence, but the principle of having that quality there in the first place is what makes it happen,” Dvorkin says, “it’s not ‘yet another traffic jam on the 401.’”

While news outlets need social media more than ever, “social media companies and search companies will be just fine in a world without those same companies,” Geist says.

In contrast, Daniel Bernhard, executive director of Canadian Friends of Broadcasting says platforms like Facebook sell the attention that valuable content like journalism generates. “As Facebook employs zero journalists, that should tell you everything you need to know,” he says.

“The people who create the value in the system make no money, and the people who are middlemen, just putting this content online, make all of the money,” Bernhard says.

Journalists are no longer gatekeepers of information and find themselves locked in the doghouse, begging to lick the scraps off Facebook/Google’s plate. Even when Google or Facebook generate traffic for a news site, most of the ad revenue funnels directly to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.

dog house with prison bars
dog house with prison bars
Journalists are no longer gatekeepers of information and find themselves locked in the doghouse, begging to lick the scraps off Facebook/Google’s plate. — Illustration by Kristen Cussen.

At the end of the day, “your eyeballs make somebody money, and what will they be doing with that money? Are they investing in accountability reporting?” Bernhard asks.

It’s important to remember that platforms play a role in what is and isn’t seen online. Bernhard says people often forget that “yes, there was some crazy thing on Facebook, but Facebook was pushing this crazy thing on people.” Although the difference is slight, it places responsibility on the platform as an active promoter of content like misinformation, death threats, and incitement to violence.

Even when media outlets try to play to social media’s strengths by looking at trending posts or engagement analytics, what qualifies as ‘engaging’ content to Facebook differs from what journalists deem newsworthy.

One of Facebook’s tactics is to increase engagement by streamlining even the most mundane interests into something extreme. More often than not, accountability journalism does not fall within that category. But if editors look too closely at velocity metrics, they may find that Facebook’s optimization algorithm trickles into their news judgement.

“We know what trends on social media. It’s Tik Toks, dogs and cat videos, and you know, women with very little clothing and then it’s violence, and sensationalism. So if you want to play that game, that’s where it goes,” Bernhard says.

It takes the old saying “if it bleeds, it leads” to a whole new level. Dvorkin says media today is caught up in finding the ‘victim du jour’ rather than value. “People don’t live like that. Yes, you have to report it, but people don’t live with that relentless grimness,” he says.

Modifying the tone and bringing some charm into the lineup will attract audiences for the long haul instead of the brief attention, gruesome, or violent stories draw that ultimately gives the impression that the news is inherently negative.

“This is the deformation of the digital culture on journalism, that it’s being satisfied to fill the news hole, but not really thinking about what goes in that hole,” Dvorkin says.

“This is the deformation of the digital culture on journalism, that it’s being satisfied to fill the news hole, but not really thinking about what goes in that hole,” Dvorkin says. — Illustration by Kristen Cussen.

Journalists have a role in being interested in valuable Canadian stories instead of feeding into the social media cycle of regurgitated headlines, sensationalized stories and budget cuts. “We have to ask ourselves, the billions of dollars of advertising budget that Canadian businesses expand on social media, how many reporter flights to remote reserves would that pay for. That’s the difference,” Bernhard says.

Anticipating a Canadian version of Australia’s media legislation is only a partial solution to Canada’s struggling news sector. Funding or no funding, digital culture perpetuates an unrealistic timeline for journalists to do in-depth, on-site reporting.

“We have to reclaim the role of journalists in process, which has been pushed aside by the Internet, and that is the challenge,” Dvorkin says. The new legislation will simply confirm journalism’s dependency on what has mainly been a one-sided relationship with tech giants.

The industry is past the deadline on this problem. New legislation aside, Big Tech is here to stay, and journalists need to find a way to co-exist with platforms that work against their duty to inform.

Student. Journalist. Writer. Artist.

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