Late last summer, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 55% of Americans have little or no confidence in the news media. It’s a trend that correlates with increased misinformation and media illiteracy that can lead to news–and subscription–avoidance. In February, Teen Vogue published an advice piece teaching young readers media literacy tools and cited that, even by accident, nearly 1 out of 4 Americans have shared fake news online. Nieman Labs reports an even higher rate.
While 14 states now have laws supporting some form of media literacy education in K-12 classrooms, research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy Joan Donovan urged that the issue is far more serious than most Americans realize: “Disinformation has become an industry, which means the financial incentives and the political gains are now aligned.”
The growth of disinformation paired with widespread news media distrust demonstrates how media illiteracy is one of the greatest threats to public institutions like legitimate journalism. This situation presents an opportunity for publishers to strengthen their value proposition for paying readers and build brand and industry trust in the process: their bottom lines will certainly benefit. What can publishers do about media literacy as part of their revenue strategy?
Re-focus on accuracy to gain readers’ attention
The Center for Media Literacy lists “what techniques are used to attract my attention?” as a key question media literate audiences will ask. Since attention-grabbing tactics play a role in media illiteracy and disinformation, one way publishers can help combat media illiteracy and its consequences is by being thoughtful about the kinds of headlines they use — especially if news content is being posted on social media.
Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina found in a 2021 study that audiences who obtain their news on social media aren’t paying as much attention. Over half of social media users in the study shared misinformation because of their diminished focus online. Pennycook writes: “It seems that the social media context may distract people from accuracy. People are often capable of distinguishing between true and false news content, but fail to even consider whether content is accurate before they share it on social media…Shifting attention to accuracy can reduce misinformation online.”
Publishers who re-focus on accurate headlines–as opposed to overly sensationalized or misleading ones–will build media trust and literacy in ways that can strengthen their relationships with readers. In fact, focusing on content accuracy as a brand and revenue strategy can actively boost the value of subscriptions for readers who associate accurate headlines with brand trust.
This is especially true for younger readers. Most of Gen Z engages news content online, and these readers are digitally savvy, even if they are still learning the nuances of digital media literacy. Since they were raised in the online context where most readers aren’t paying as much attention, young readers are actually more likely to avoid a brand or churn if they end up distrusting the content tactics used by publishers to acquire their attention and retain their investment. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism explained:
“In our interviews, young people were often frustrated by the negativity of the news agenda, about sensationalism and about the perceived agenda of the mainstream media. Sometimes they feel that the views and concerns of their generation – such as climate change and minority rights – are not properly represented. But equally they do not want traditional media to go away, dumb down, or radically change their style just to appeal to them.”
Thus, publishers seeking trust and subscriptions from the large market share of younger readers should use tactics based on quality and accuracy. This content strategy protects or boosts revenue by making paying readers more confident in the value of their subscription.
Clearly distinguish between opinion and reporting
Where possible, publishers can contribute to media literacy solutions by clearly distinguishing between content that is opinion versus reporting. If readers in digital contexts cannot tell the difference, publishers risk the appearance of having a covert agenda counter to ethical journalism. Alternatively, they may also risk readers mistaking opinions as facts and sharing misinformation. Either scenario diminishes the credibility of the brand.
“Opinion stories no longer look clearly different from news stories. With many readers coming to news sites from social media links, they may not pay attention to the subtle clues that mark a story published by the opinion staff.
Add to this the fact that even readers who go to a paper’s homepage are met with news and opinion stories displayed graphically at the same level, connoting the same level of importance. And reporters share analysis and opinion on Twitter, further confusing readers.”
Founder of PolitiFact and the Knight Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University Bill Adair thoughtfully explored the value of bias in journalism, saying that content should be viewed and presented on a continuum. In his view, journalistic content ranges from objective news to news analysis, investigative reporting to fact checking to opinion pieces. Each of these points along a continuum offer different and meaningful benefits to readers (and profit value to publishers!), but the problem arises when publishers fail to clearly distinguish the differences for online readers.
Adair notes that sometimes publishers simply do not know the difference themselves about where their content ought to fit. This can indicate that publishers may not know their readers well enough to understand which content reader segments are willing to pay for and how publishers can offer that content to those readers more effectively. A stronger subscriptions strategy can help clarify an audience-based approach to the entire revenue funnel from content offerings to subscriptions to advertising experiences.
Publishers can participate in charting a course for change
Media illiteracy is a complex issue, and while it’s just one of several factors contributing to misinformation and media distrust, publishers can still play a role in finding a solution that draws readers back to high quality journalism they are willing to pay for. Tech news publisher, ZDNet reported that misinformation costs $78 billion per year globally–both to fight it and correct errors. That number has likely ballooned since the initial study, and there is no question it has an impact on publishers too.
Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, Sonia Livingstone, argues that publishers must play a role combatting media illiteracy:
“Before advocating for media literacy as part of a solution to the latest socio-technological ill, let’s take a holistic approach. This means, let’s get really clear what the problem is, and identify what role media or digital technologies play in that problem…”
Despite the growing challenges of the misinformation industry, legitimate journalism brands have much to offer. Publishers will benefit from understanding the unique value their content serves paying readers, and in many cases, this is content that combats media illiteracy and news avoidance: younger readers want to pay for accurate versus sensationalized content; other readers want subscription experiences that more clearly distinguish between types of content. A strong content strategy that boosts media literacy can also boost overall revenue growth through subscriptions.