Blocking Out the Noise

  • 24th October 2017
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Blocking Out the Noise

Can curated news websites help us to better understand current events?

By Emma Gilpin

Sometimes it can seem as though we have too much choice when it comes to news sources

In the modern era of the Internet and “Fake News”, we are living with a wealth of information at our fingertips. However, it’s no secret that this wealth can sometimes turn into an overload, and the obsessive need that we feel to pay witness to, attempt to understand and then form an opinion on every single world event can be tiring. We are also offered a dizzying number of means to keep up with the news, from newspaper subscriptions and televised updates, to alerts that come straight to your phone and social media posts from friends, family and the algorithms that Facebook has developed to show us things that we are almost bound to “like”. Amid this information overload, it can sometimes be difficult to work out which stories are influenced by bias, where the line is between fact-based reporting and opinion pieces, and which events we really need to know about in order to form a coherent understanding of the world around us.

The rise of “Fake News” has disturbed many people as they begin to question which previously reputable news sources they can trust, looking into the origins of news stories and the evidence or statistics which are used to support them. In recent years and during times of political tumult for the USA and Europe, politicians and media moguls have taken advantage of their power in order to advance opinions and ideas disguised as facts, influencing the masses. Fake news is often written in order to provoke a response of shock and indignation from readers and played a particularly prominent role during the Brexit debates and the last US election, during which many people started to question the validity of stories they were reading in newspapers and online.

The rise of the internet has contributed greatly to this sudden surge in “fake” and sensationalist news stories, as journalism has found itself in a state of financial crisis and news outlets and websites have started to rely more and more on click-generated revenue. “Clickbait” headlines aim to lure the reader in by telling them something shocking (but not necessarily true) so that people will click on the article and the page will generate revenue from ads. This is not an inherently problematic trend- although some will argue it has led to a decline in the quality of journalism- but many of these headlines are centred on opinions veiled as facts, statistics which have been manipulated in order to sound more shocking, or quotes from politicians which have been taken out of context in order to generate a response of shock in the reader. This trend towards creating divisive headlines, combined with the rise of social media sites such as Twitter, which encourage the writing of short, snappy comments on current affairs, has also led to a phenomenon whereby many people skim past the headlines but do not read articles in full. We are all guilty of this, due to the sheer volume of information with which we are being presented, but should certainly precede with caution when citing these headlines in discussions or debates, as it is so difficult to know their actual validity.

Meanwhile, the rise of social media has also, according to some, led to the rise of “echo chambers”, as people share and are exposed to information and ideas that reflects or validates the views of people and their peers, rather than seeing information from a variety of sources, or opinions which may challenge their own views and biases. Recent research has shown that users of websites like Twitter do tend to follow, read and retweet stories and opinions that reflect their own views, and experts have warned against the “tunnel vision” and polarisation that could result from this. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer and business psychologist at University College London, spoke of the need for individuals to “actively seek out alternative ways of informing themselves” rather than relying on news and opinions from sources whose political views they are already aligned with.

“It’s up to the individual to actively seek alternative ways of informing themselves.”- Dimitrios Tsivrikos, researcher of “echo chambers”

In order to combat these phenomena, curated news websites are attempting to help people make better sense of the world around them, by collating information from a variety of sources and sharing it in a user-friendly format. At the moment, the website Compass News is being beta-tested on students from several British universities, with a view to making it available to everyone in years to come. It allows users to filter out the fake news and celebrity gossip in order to read summaries of the most important news stories that day, as well as contextualising pieces from trusted sources. Each day, they provide a 100-word summary of the top 5–10 news stories that day, meaning that users can still enjoy the concise nature of online news headlines, whilst knowing that the information is contextualised and coming from a source they trust.

Due to the website’s usability, as well as its focus on summarising the information overload which has led many people to feel frustrated or confused by the way news is presented today, it’s possible that a website such as Compass News could be the future of journalism and online news. Whilst the website is still a business in the same way as Facebook is, the hope is that it can generate revenue simply by being a reputable, fun-to-use source of news for students as well as the rest of the population. According to the CEO and former president of the Oxford Union, Mayank Banerjee, the goal of the website is “to help people make better informed decisions about the world they live in. Journalism is a crucial part of that process — but right now the consumption method is completely contradictory to it. We think we can change that.” Let’s hope he is right.

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