A troubling new form of media manipulation

Traffic to certain news stories could become manipulated by special interest groups resulting in a distorted media.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor on

A lot of stories begin with a pitch from a public relations person to a journalist. What if that pitch included "... and we will drive traffic to that story."

That might be a killer pitch. Especially when there are increasing numbers of journalists paid according to the number of pageviews they generate (disclosure: I am paid by ZDnet according to number of pageviews).

The pitch might not need to implicitly state the traffic boost, especially if a PR agency had a reputation as being able to boost traffic to specific stories.

In some respects, there is nothing new in this scenario: journalists want to write a popular story and they will choose stories that have that potential, whether they are paid according to the size of the traffic or not.

But there is another aspect to this that is new. If PR agencies, or any other self-interest group, can actively boosts traffic to specific news stories; it can manipulate the news media in new ways.

It might not take much extra traffic to favor a news story.

News aggregators love to pick up on "popular" or "trending" stories. A relatively small traffic boost from a PR agency can become magnified if the story makes it onto a 'most popular' list.

These types of activities would be detremental to society because it would allow a new type of manipulation of the news media by shifting attention to stories favored by wealthy special interests.

The job of a journalist has always been one of trying to sort through many biased information sources and end up with a fair and accurate story. Journalists know that PR firms are biased and that's OK because they take that bias into consideration, they know how to deal with the information they receive, what to use and what to leave behind. That's what quality journalism is all about. That's the role of a gatekeeper.

But if certain news stories can rise to prominence because of manipulation by PR or other agencies -- then the important role of the journalist, as society's gatekeeper, becomes seriously compromised. That's not good for government.

Software engineers have a saying: garbage in, garbage out. If we have a biased media, we will be less able to make good decisions. And we have a lot of important decisions to make: about the economy, energy, education, elders, ethics ... and those are just the 'e's.

Will companies and self-interest groups be able to use the media to exert more influence? Will PR agencies be able to develop new techniques of media influence that will aid their clients?

The answer to both questions has to be yes.

And the ability of the media to resist and fight back against new tactics of manipulation is severely weakened because of the massive disruption happening within the entire media sector.

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