Several companies are challenging traditional cable news stations and video outlets for the coveted role among millennials as the go-to source for video-based news and information. These companies, like NowThis and AJ+ stray from the traditional format of video journalism that invests heavily in drawing viewers to the company’s website or cable channel. Instead, they bring their content directly to their targeted audience via social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine and YouTube.
At first glance, these groups provide a fine service. They have found an untapped market of young students and early professionals who want information delivered succinctly and with great frequency, to their phones. Yet, as demonstrated by flippant posts such as NowThis special interview with Joe Biden on gun regulation and a video of an “elephant that goes hard in the paint,” NowThis is an alleged news source that is simply driven by web hits, rather than a dedication to reliable reporting.
These companies profit off of our short attention spans and the assumption that many people do not waste their time fact-checking reports against other sources. This is especially true when information is not sought out by viewers, but rather appears on news feeds while users are completing other tasks.If the social media, viral video model becomes the new norm in reporting, a significant portion of young people in America and other parts of the world won’t just be ill-informed, as if they had not read the news at all; they will be actively misinformed, digesting information that is oversimplified, unsubstantiated and sometimes purposefully misleading.
A large part of the problem with these companies is that they lack accountability. NowThis and AJ+ do not give credit to those who create their media content, nor do they provide the primary source of their content in an easily accessible form. For example, in some NowThis videos, the name of the footage source will appear in the top left corner of the video in small, white font that blends into the white backgrounds and is only on the screen for a few seconds. Even the company websites, which are strategically underdeveloped to keep the focus on their social media presence, do not provide the names of their key contributors or employees.
One possible reason for this lack of attribution is the restrictive length of the videos. Both companies typically produce short content: NowThis videos range from 15 to 30 seconds, and AJ+, an offshoot of Al Jazeera, produces content that typically ranges from one to five minutes in length, though they also produce short documentaries which can be as long as seven minutes. As a result, there is no time for formal attribution in the actual videos. Moreover, there is not even time for informal or implied attribution to their creators. For example, attribution on a traditional cable news channel might be implied by putting a face to the reporting, like a news anchor in a studio. This suggests to viewers that the reporting is coming directly from the network, the team working on that particular show, and the face of that network — the on-screen reporter. Instead, NowThis and AJ+ have, for the most part, gotten rid of on-screen reporters. Rather, they opt for on-screen text which can be read quickly by audience members themselves and which is less costly to produce.
Without a name or a face to the videos, the creators of online content skirt around potential accusations of unscrupulous reporting. NowThis and AJ+ video creators effectively shift potential criticism off of themselves and onto the elusive and intangible company at large, which could more easily dodge this condemnation.
This difficulty of holding an entire media organization accountable is demonstrated by two recent examples of bad reporting — one from a traditional news source, NBC’s former “Nightly News” host Brian Williams, and one from NowThis.
Brian Williams lost his position on NBC’s primetime show and went seven months without work or pay, after making exaggerated claims that his military helicopter had been fired at during a reporting stint in the Iraq War. NBC as an organization, however, was largely unaffected by his bad reporting and continued to produce material after his lie.
NowThis, in a similar fashion, produced a video falsely claiming CNN had deleted a poll, which asked viewers to choose the candidate that had won the first democratic primary debate in 2015. The video suggested that after Bernie Sanders won the poll, it was eliminated in a CNN and Time Warner conspiracy to bring Hillary Clinton to power. Without any references or individuals to pin the story to, NowThis got off easy. They kept the video up even after it was revealed that the CNN poll had never been deleted and that the accusations were entirely fabricated. NowThis video creators dodged repercussions for their failure to fact-check.
Despite this lack of accountability, several million young people still trust both companies. As of last week, NowThis boasted 3,758,225 followers on Facebook, and AJ+ proudly claimed 2,728,428,365 total video views. This support is especially impressive given that both groups only began gaining substantial popularity as recently as 2014.
Part of the reason for this premature and undeserved trust may stem from the fact that NowThis and AJ+ repackage clips from many other established new sources. With an overwhelming amount of videos and articles online, many people discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information by looking for brands they recognize. NowThis and AJ+ appeal to this judgment process by using clips from PBS, CNN and C-SPAN, among others. Moreover, NowThis frequently collaborates with HuffingtonPost, and AJ+ benefits from their connection to parent company, Al Jazeera.
These companies don’t just contribute to bad journalism, they actually make the effort to produce reliable journalism more difficult and less profitable. The success these new media forms have in drawing young audiences puts pressure on existing news companies to try to target younger viewers through similar social media and entertainment tactics. This means many media outlets will have to hire more individuals to expand their social media departments, thus raising their company costs. Alternately, they will have to encourage reporters to seek out stories that are click-bait material or twist existing information into stories that have the potential to go viral. Either way, all of this attention to the strategy of dissemination detracts from the actual process of collecting the information and producing accurate and fair reporting.
News publications should be honest, reliable and accountable to public criticism. These companies meet none of those requirements. Rather, they embody a hypocrisy at the center of our current cultural moment. They are both the product and the perpetuation of a consumer culture that expects information to be available within seconds after it occurs, that insists complex topics be summarized in a few seconds for viewing, and that demands the blurring of lines between information and entertainment to make the news more palatable — all while being shocked and outraged when this leads reporting astray. It is this fast-paced cultural pressure that NowThis to churn out new videos faster than they can fact check. It is not enough to complain about media outlets. If we want to trust the things we read and see online, we have to do more to correct for this cultural pressure — starting by avoiding videos by companies like NowThis and AJ+.
Rachel Cohn is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at [email protected]