If Anthony Mundine was shouting inanities on a street corner, most people would probably hurry past, while looking studiedly in the other direction.
But because he has a public profile in Australia as a sportsperson, his often bizarre and offensive comments are front page news, which had us at Starts at 60 thinking – do we report his latest comments? In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the boxer has suggested that homosexuals should face the death penalty, implied that gay people are not dissimilar to paedophiles, and said that primary school children will become gay after watching homosexual television cameras.
If you want to read his comments in lurid detail, you can here.
Of course, plenty of people will say they have no interest in what he has to say, and will wonder why he receives any publicity at all, when there are so many ‘better’ stories out there. But the truth is, many others do want to read his comments, if only to be saddened and appalled, and will click on the link to see in detail what he said. Publishing his comments will bring a lot of readership to a news site, readership that’s vital if those news sites wish to remain in business.
And that’s the tricky question for news providers – do you bring people what they say they want to read, or what the data show they actually do read?
It’s a bit like the opinion polls ahead of Donald Trump’s stunning US election victory – people polled said they had no intention of voting for him, but they did, in droves. Likewise, people may say that they want to read about the good public works, kind community members, serious economic data and the like. But readership analytics show clearly that what the majority of people read (online, at least – perhaps many are still getting their ‘serious’ news in print form) most of is lighter news – pretty dresses, celebrities good and bad, misbehaving politicians and horrible criminals.
The division between what humans want to see published, and what they actually read, was perhaps never clearer than with the Barnaby Joyce situation. For every person who has decried the awful situation the reporting of his alleged extramarital affair has left his wife and daughters in, there are 10 who have devoured stories of his apparent hypocrisy. The same can be seen every time a story about Mundine is published and if it wasn’t, papers such as the Daily Telegraph wouldn’t bother interviewing him. Perhaps it’s a little like the ranter on the street corner. Most of us look away, but can’t help but looking back or glancing out of the corner of our eye in wonder and/or horror.
Of course, this is generalisation – there are many people who’ll say this doesn’t reflect their reading habits and that’s no doubt true, but largely, the numbers don’t lie – bad news IS good news for many news consumers.
So what should news outlets do – go with what’s ‘good’ for readers, or what readers really want? For a long time, readers had little control over what newspapers published, because a letter to the editor rarely influenced an editor’s decision to publish or not. A man (yes, editors were, and are still, usually men) decided what was right for readers to hear. In other words, readers got what an editor thought was good for them.
Now, though, readers have almost total control over what they want to see.
Stop reading a certain type of story and readers can be sure news outlets will take notice because they study very carefully what online news consumers do, and don’t consume. Stop reading it long enough and readers would likely find that that particularly type of story appeared less often. Read more ‘good news’ and more of it would likely appear – not immediately, perhaps, because the long habit of bad news being good business would be a hard one to break, but change would eventually occur.
There’s no smart answer to this conundrum. News outlets aren’t, by and large, non-profit organisations and so will likely continue to bring readers what the readership data tells them they will consume most enthusiastically. The ones that have tried on a large scale to offer something different – such as the New Day in the UK, which closed after just 10 weeks in 2016 because readers weren’t interested in its mix of unbiased political coverage and happy, life-affirming news stories – have so far failed.
But it is worth thinking about next time someone complains about the nature of the news that’s reported, and wonders why more ordinary, decent people aren’t front-page headlines. It’s all within the reader’s control.