About a month ago, there was a ‘viral’ article passed around in Denmark, and Scandinavia as a whole. It’s a great case-study in how the modern media works, and how we’re a part of it.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to demonstrate this without ‘feeding the beast’. So, I’ll do so now, but with comments on its anatomy as we dissect it. So, here we go.
This is the article in question.
Part 1: Let the reader imply a story way more interesting than facts could prove
The article’s title, Dark lands: the grim truth behind the ‘Scandinavian miracle’, implies a certain calibre of revelation. Based on the title, you imagine a story about the Scandinavians achieving their success by secretly feeding children to goats or something. That would be a pretty interesting story. You don’t have enough information to build a whole story in your head, but you’re primed and ready for one that’s exciting and revealing, and you’d like to read it.
Ok, so the article is about Scandinavia and not, say, a koala rescue center, but still, it isn’t the article we were promised. The facts in this article (namely that Scandinavia has its share of problems) couldn’t justify a heading like that to a reasonable person. We’re ‘ok’ with this because we just assume this means our subjective definitions of words such as ‘dark’ and ‘grim’ were wrong. They weren’t.
Part 2: Use basic facts, but be kind of a dick about it
I deliberately chose one of the smaller paragraphs, but the whole article sort of has this feel. There isn’t much information here, but even the one or two facts are completely surrounded by negative words, which I’ve highlighted in bold. The whole thing can be summarized in 3 bullet points:
- Iceland has a population of (about) 320,000
- Iceland is in the North Atlantic
- Fuck you
It’s something like what House does. As a reader, it’s point 3 that really gets you, but he’s right about point 1 and 2…what if others think he’s also right about point 3? Oh no! As a reader, you really want to say something about it, but not really sure what… which brings us to part 3…
Part 3: Profit
Check out the top of the page where the title is. This is the summary of the article. Everything important you need to know about it at a glance.
It’s filed under News » World News » Europe. It was filed January 27th. Then look at all of the other information: 2811 comments. 74715 Facebook shares. These are reader engagement metrics. Along with pageviews, these metrics mark whether the article was successful or a failure. This is the only thing this article will ever be judged on to those who published it. Raw counts to these numbers. The reason for the shares and the content of those comments doesn’t matter as much as they exist.
In this case, this article is hugely successful because it maximized those metrics. It happened to do so by using some negative elements of the human psyche, but there’s no box on the side to measure that, so it might as well not exist.
The problem is, that this trick is one-off. We now know what his tone is compared to what he delivers, so we won’t fall for it again, right?
Part 4: Recant without revising
Once the initial article’s sharing had hit a saturation point, (approximately 1 week) the writer remarked at how shocked, shocked, he was that a whole group of people would react to defend themselves when being slandered online. He admitted his article had a negative slant and demonstrated his intent to convey a more genuine experience by going back and rewording the article in a more factual, informative tone.
Just kidding. He left the article as-is (with 1 fact removed since it was wrong), and created this new article instead. In it, as a show of goodwill, he lets various people from the aforementioned countries have a quick blurb. The blurbs don’t really address the content of the article, and the article doesn’t address the blurbs, but this has the superficial structure of being balanced and representing ‘both’ sides of an issue. He even includes some humility so he doesn’t lose future credibility.
The end result: you can see by the ‘engagement’ that this one wasn’t as much of a hit, but still had a pretty good return based on the effort it took to write it.
Again, I had no idea how to talk about this without actually giving pageviews and some level of psychological space to the issue at hand (technically, writing this is also a form of reader engagement) and I think I did everything in this post that I mentioned within the post itself (except ‘profit’, I’m not a newspaper).
What’s scary is how natural it seems, and how this is what we think of when we think of “news” nowadays. I don’t know if there’s anything I can personally do about it, but at least I’m very much aware of it now. Hopefully you are now, too.