The Disruptive Power of Choice: Are Too Many Options Eroding Credibility, Relevance of News?

In his compelling book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes our modern culture in which the freedom of choice gives way to too much choice which in turn leads to deepening dissatisfaction.  While some choice is good and leads to a sense of independence and satisfaction, Schwartz argues effectively that when faced with too many choices we are more likely to regret both the choice we make and those we didn’t.

The circumstances of modern life seem to be conspiring to make experiences less satisfying than they could be and perhaps should be, in part because of the richness against which we are comparing our own experiences.  . . . [A]n overload of choice contributes to this dissatisfaction.

In short, disappointment is often the consequence of abundance.  While Schwartz was not writing about the modern-day collision of traditional journalism and social media, he certainly could have been.

Ample and on-going research into the shifting habits of news consumers and the perceptions of credibility and trustworthiness of news sources identify significant changes in news consumer behavior over the past two decades. The emergence of the 24/7 news cycle, along with new formats and sources of news delivery, appear to have eroded news consumers’ engagement with and trust in established news media. For a time at least, it seemed that the more news that was available to news consumers, the less that news was perceived as credible.

In its September poll, Gallup News Service found that  Americans’ “trust and confidence” in mass media – newspapers, television, and radio – in “reporting news fully, accurately, and fairly” recovered slightly from its all-time low in 2012. Still, only 44% of respondents said they have a “great deal/fair amount” of trust in these news sources. The percentage has hovered in the mid-40s for most of the last decade, dropping from an all-time high of 72% in 1976 to the mid- to low-50s in the 90s.

The Gallup data is consistent with the findings of the Pew Research Center.   A 2005 report entitled Media: More Voices, Less Credibility correlated the precipitous drop in public trust with the rising tide of news media options. Asked specifically about media brands, the survey respondents deal a blow to news credibility across media print and broadcast formats, with 28 to 45% percent of respondents saying they “believe almost nothing of what they see or hear in print or on TV,” depending on the news source.

It is interesting to note that Americans’ confidence in media began its most recent decline in 2005, which coincidentally is the same period when social media and social networking sites began their uptick in adoption. While this correlation does not confirm causation, it is curious that as news consumers have greater choice in media, their confidence in media, overall, declines.

Going back further, Gallop first recorded a dip in confidence in 1976, when confidence dropped from 72% in 1976, to 53% a year later. Confidence has never again risen above 55%. Coincidentally, the 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of 28 cable programming networks, including HBO (1972), C-Span (1977), ESPN (1979), and CNN (1980), providing further fodder for consideration of the relationship between the amount of news sources and the declining perception of news media itself.

This genie won’t go back in the bottle now, barring an unforeseen and mass consolidation of the news industry.   But another trend of choice may provide a path forward.

Numerous studies document the rapid adoption of mobile devices, such as tablets and smart phones, and social networking services like Facebook and Twitter, as the means for news consumption.  More subtle, however, is the impact of mobile and social media on the behavior of news consumption.  As news comes to the consumer via social and mobile channels, consumption behavior is shifting from scheduled news consumption (for example, a morning newspaper, a top-of-the-hour radio broadcast, or the evening news) to incidental and on-demand news consumption.  In short, news consumption is shifting from an active to passive activity.  U.S. adults increasingly learn about news as they use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for purposes other than news consumption.  Where once news consumers specifically sought out news by reading a morning paper or tuning in to a news broadcast, consumers today become aware of news as it passes through a stream of information, entertainment, and socialization. 

Moreover, news consumption is becoming a two-step process.  News consumers learn of news through social channels such as Facebook or Twitter, and then turn to traditional news outlets – broadcast, print, other online news sites – to learn more about a news story.  This suggests that Facebook and Twitter do not replace current news sources, but supplement them as a means of discovery and awareness.

That news consumers are turning to new formats is not in question. How these formats affect news consumption patterns and perceptions and how they affect the news organizations that report news is of critical concern.

Increasingly, it is critical that news organizations separate the “format”  of news — the method by which a news item is delivered (i.e., print, television and radio broadcast, social networks, Web and blog sites, and mobile apps) — from the “source” of the news — the organization or individual that created or relayed the news item (i.e., professional media, bloggers, friends and the social graph).  This shift has tremendous implications for newsrooms and journalists and their place in the value chain of news dissemination, and in some instances suggests that once venerable news sources may see their role shift from primary reporter/provider of news to secondary confirmation of new items first identified elsewhere.   

The implications for news organizations are significant.  In the future, news organizations will not be defined by their format (print journalism, broadcast journalism) because every news organization will have a cross-format channels to reach their news audience.  No longer is social media a supplement to news published in other formats, it is integral to it as more news consumers discover news within a larger social context. Similarly, mobile apps are not optional, but one in a series of formats that meets the audience at the point of consumption.  Smart news organizations  are developing practices that capture consumers at the point of consumption (e.g., Facebook or Twitter) and lead them through unfolding stories delivered in a variety of formats including mobile, print, broadcast, and online with each format providing unique reporting and  story-telling capabilities.

These are challenging times as the abundance of choice in format and brand have fundamentally and forever changed news consumption patterns and perceptions.  Yet this disruption in business as usual is a tremendous opportunity for news organizations to rethink their purpose and power.  It is an opportunity to transcend the self-imposed limits of format. It is an opportunity to become a differentiated choice.

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2 thoughts on “The Disruptive Power of Choice: Are Too Many Options Eroding Credibility, Relevance of News?

  1. John Hamer says:

    Good piece with lots of truth. I’ve been plugging away at the media-trust issue for many years now as founder of the Washington News Council (http://wanewscouncil.org). We’re the only such organization left in the U.S., although dozens of press councils exist worldwide. There are no easy answers, but I firmly believe that if journalists were more Transparent, Accountable and Open — what I call the TAO of Journalism — that could help. See our website, http://taoofjournalism.org, to see how it works. Want to write about it? If so, feel free to give me a call. It’s no panacea, but a step in the right direction, IMHO.

  2. […] and as I’ve written before, the profession and practice of news journalism has been profoundly disrupted by social media. […]

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