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    Media and Public Credibility: Click-bate titles are tearing down media ethics and professional standards

    Media and Public Credibility Logo

    Author: Svjetlana Šurlan

    A title such as “Without this you will not be able to cross the border” has the purpose of confusing the public and bringing ever more clicks to the portal that publishes it. Such click-bate titles are tearing down ethics and professional coverage standards, while the media, in their race for clicks, bring long term damage to the society. The expert public and the state must address this issue and regulate the field of media.  

    Click by click until public madness

    We witness war-inciting titles everyday also. Thus often we have titles that say that “Bakir is preparing Bosniaks for war”, that “Dodik announced secession”, that any of the sides is arming paramilitary formations on a daily basis and so on. In the majority of cases, those are claims blown out of proportion, taken out of context or they are complete inventions. This was all noticed by the team who works on the portal and verifies the accuracy and adequacy of media information. “’Vecernji list’ published a story on the temporary halt in paying out pensions for 3,000 retirees in BiH and 3,000 abroad. Domestic portals published in the titles of all articles that 6,000 retirees in BiH will be without pension, which is a false conclusion,” noted editor of the portal Emir Zulejhić. As an example he also brought up an article from the BETA agency which treats the proposal of a law on the level of the European Union, which would change the procedure for accessing the Schengen zone. “From such agency news, tens of click bate titles were created which are claiming that ‘without this you will not be allowed to cross the border’, which implies exiting the country which again is a false conclusion,” said  Zulejhić.

    The portals, also, are craftily taking advantage of cases when article subjects have the same name as famous people, and so we have titles saying that “Dačić saved a young boy from the river” (local policeman), “Aleksandar Vučić arrested” (local criminal), or “Vučić’s incarceration extended” (again the same criminal). “Similar manipulations take place when important information is left out of the title, such as about the territory where the news is taking place, so we have ‘urgent notice for drivers’ published on a local portal, but regards Croatia, or ‘new laws’ and ‘new taxes’ which were passed in Uganda. In the cases with the names and locations, nothing is factually wrong, but they were consciously crafted in order to confuse and bate more clicks,” explains Zulejhić.

    The quality is dropping, the content is becoming bate for clicks

    Feđa Kulenović from the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo feels that the quality of information is definitely degraded if the media, often provoked by the need to survive, wishes to ensure profit through advertising, instead of providing quality content to their readers through which the advertiser will reach its public. “Unfortunately there is a tendency for the content published to be regarded only as a bate for advertising,” says Kulenović.

    Zulejhić agrees with him, and says that the quality of information that is placed in the public has deteriorated amidst the media’s wish to fight for more and more clicks on online platforms, thus gaining marketers. “Anonymous portals are leading the way here, and they exist exclusively to bring to their owners profit from marketing they post on their pages. At first sight they appear to be like media, even though they are not, because their complete content comes from copying other news, or making up non existing ones. An even bigger problem is the fact that the legitimate media do not care for the quality of the information they take from others either, i.e. they are transferring them without any verification, so there are cases that someone publishes a made up story on an anonymous ‘media’, which is then taken and dispersed by the real media as ‘news’, even though it is really not,” notes Zulejhic.   

    Editor in chief of the daily “Nezavisne Novine” Sandra Gojković Arbutina notes that the rapid deterioration of the quality of information started when the online media started carrying out a personal battle for clicks, aiming for speed and sensation before verified and trustworthy information. “It seems that the advertisers care about the number of clicks, but, if we talk about serious advertisers, the ones who rely only on the mathematical picture and ignore the seriousness and credibility of the media are rare. Even though the readers are completely overwhelmed with the flood of portals with similar titles and visuals, we should not underestimate their power of differentiating relevant from ‘knockoff’ media, and especially advertiser who make long evaluations of media before they decide to invest money in marketing,” says Gojković Arbutina.

    Communicologist Borislav Vukojević states that today we live in a time of relativization of coverage, even though the media have been trying to draw attention since the 19th century. “Today’s logic is that the agenda is going to consist of information which are ‘viral’, and not of the highest quality. Of course, the tendency for clicks does not have to necessarily be bad - information which are significant for the public can and must be made interesting - but it is bad when people stray too far: fake news, sensationalism and similar. Quality information is unfortunately negatively correlated with the expansion of the media scene - portals, social networks, blogs and so forth,” notes Vukojević.

    Where are ethics and professional standards?

    Gojković Arbutina notes that for some time now, there has been polemic amongst the media community about how to maintain professional standard in the race to be first to publish. “There is no dilemma that true information is the only measurement, in front of which all the excuses about the fight for survival in the media pond and the general crises hold no water,” she says.

    Kulenović adds that professionalism and ethics are suffering if only clicks are chased and all is done to appease marketers, instead of readers. “The professional community should start addressing this issue even more so that they all together can be empowered to resist the negative tendencies of the market,” claims Kulenović and emphasizes that there are still many good journalists who are professional and value the ethics of their profession, and that the public, if they wish, can reach quality information.

    Vukojević feels that ethics and journalism standards suffer most, because it is not important how true or accurate something is, rather how attractive for a click it is. “However, with development of new media technology we are not limited to only ‘mainstream’ media, so we can seek the broader picture through other platforms. Of course, civic journalism is not without perils, so the same rules should be applied: check three times before we believe,” says Vukojević.

    Zulejhić says that we cannot expect anonymous portals to respect professionals standards, but that even big and mainstream media for which we know/believe that they seek professionalism and objectivity, are also falling for ‘click-bate’ titles or publishing unverified and false information. “The fight for clicks is the fight for money, so it is the fight for survival and existence. That is why the quality of content of certain television stations is worse on the internet then when it is broadcast on the television. Reasons for this are that radio-diffusion emitters are under the jurisdiction of the Communications Regulatory Agency, while there is no responsibility for what they publish on their portals. The number of media who did not try to acquire money by such means and who do not resort to click-bate titles, unverified information, as a means of attracting the public and making a profit is very small,” claims Zulejhić.

    Consequences of misinformation are permanent and irreversible

    Further, he adds that we should keep in mind that the consequences of misinformation can be permanent and irreversible, especially when they are believed by a large number of people. According to his opinion, disinformation impact all other spheres of life, while the citizens of BiH are fed up with titles and claims that are blow out of proportion, taken out of context or completely made up, but on the basis of which they make build their political opinions and decisions.

     “All those decisions impact all our lives directly. That is why prevention is much more needed here than ‘fixing the damage’. The development of media and computer literacy as well as a critical opinion should be part of formal education. Those skills are necessary in today’s digital time, which is oversaturated with information - and disinformation. They are not needed just so we know how to recognize media manipulation, but we need them in our everyday lives and internet usage, as we use it for learning, communicating, buying and doing many other things, but where we are constantly exposed to various risks, such as identity theft and financial fraud,”

    Kulenović sees the same solution, and also emphasizes that propaganda and the spread of disinformation have always damaged society, and so is the case today, and that educating the citizens through programs of media and computer literacy is the only way for fixing the damage. Vukojević notes that the importance of a certain aspect of media literacy is being neglected, so we have absurd situations that they are introducing religion in middles schools, while ignoring media literacy. “The damage caused by the new media sphere can only be mitigated with correct formal and informal education in the field of computer and media literacy: media literacy is not just insisting on critically evaluating media messages, but also enabling people to actively create content and understand the new reality,” notes  Vukojević.

    "Portaloids" pollute the media space

    The flood of sites behind which no one stands, which have no cite notice or address, but, essentially, behind which there are interest groups contributes significantly to the degradation of ethics and professional standards.  Gojković Arbutina says it is a fact that “portaloids”, which are founded overnight, during a campaign, with an infusion of party or foreign money, have polluted the media space, but with simple observation of the public impulses you can see that it does not take the most careful of readers to see through them in one day.

    “There are not many ways in which we can fight against such occurrences, because they are temporary as are all trends, so we can only abide by clear standards, of course and adapt and constantly appeal to the public, educating readers to inform themselves about, amongst other things, who the people informing them area,” says  Gojković Arbutina.

    Kulenović says that such portals degrade the ethics and professional standards only as far as everything is viewed as a credible source of information in the age of new media. “Various interest groups have always had their official and unofficial voices, and nothing changed here. The overall lack of trust in the media is a consequence of the change in paradigm due to the internet, and it is caused by the insufficient education and information amongst readers about these changes that took place,” feels  Kulenović.

    Zulejhić notes that the fact alone that such portals exist and that their news are transmitted, sometimes even by mainstream media, attests to their contribution to degradation of professional standards. “The best example of this is a recent fake news in the form of a statement made by Danijel Subašić, who supposedly dedicated a game to the Mothers of Srebrenica. The news came from a portal that does not have political, but economic background, but it was transmitted by numerous media, until the statement reached Subašić himself who found himself in a very uncomfortable situation in front of the cameras,” states Zulejhić.

    He also adds, that in the current campaigning period we notice ‘sleeping’ portals that wake up and reactivate when they are needed by their owners. “In the media basis we have at the portal, we noticed that certain persons own tens of portals, which means that their news can reach hundreds of thousands of people through all the Facebook pages where they share links. The biggest problem with anonymous portals is in fact their anonymity, due to which, in the case of defamation, hate speech or other legal violations, we do not know who to turn to and we cannot identify the authors who then cannot be criminally prosecuted”, notes Zulejhić.

    Vukojević adds that fake news and ‘fake media’ have existed for a long time. “They undermine democracy in a society in any case, because they relativize the media scene and cause confusion for one part of the public when it comes to interpreting reality. Still, fake news is not so complicated to spot, even for the part of the public who is not media literate: the problem is when fake news is non-critically transmitted by mainstream media (sometimes on purpose, and sometimes due to ignorance). I repeat once more, we should not point the entire blame towards the new anomalies such as portals with no site notice, but we need to fight for better media in general: news that hides part of the truth, which spins, which is true but essentially inaccurate - is also fake news”, notes Vukojević.

    Necessary (self)regulation

    BiH is at a great disadvantage when it comes to regulation in the online media sphere. “First, we need to completely reform the Law on Public Information, which is old, where the internet is not even mentioned. Then, we need to reform the laws on copyrights, the laws on elections and introduce a completely new law on media which will accurately and precisely define the right and responsibilities of those active in the world of public informing,” states Vukojević.

    Zulejhić agrees that BIH has no clear legislative frameworks for the work of online media, nor are they susceptible to any limitations. “This field is regulated by the Press Code of BiH, adopted by the Press Council in BiH, which is the self-regulatory body for the press and online media. Whether certain online media abide by the rules of the code and respect the adjudications of the Council, is exclusively the media’s choice, or good will - and that is only if we speak of legitimate media. Anonymous online portals have no intention of abiding by it. The only ‘code’ they are interested in is the one prescribed by Google for the usage of its advertising services - and they are even trying to deceive them in every way possible,” he explains.

    He adds that to strengthen the media’s integrity, a fight on several fronts is needed - from improving legislation, especially transparency of media ownership, across strengthening the independence of public media from political factors and transparency of spending public money intended for media, to working on the regulation of online space and differentiating between true media and online portals which are nothing more than advertising boards.

    The consortium comprised of four organizations, the BH Journalists Association, the Press Council in BiH, Mediacentar and JaBiHEU, within the EC project “Media and Public Credibility”, are working on developing a draft of two important laws which are lacking in the media legislation in BiH, and they are the Law on Transparency of Media Ownership and Media Financing from Public Budgets, and the Law on Advertising. These laws should to a good extent resolve the current chaos in the online sphere in BiH.  

    “The issue of online media regulation is very complicated and it does not have one simple answer, but this does not mean that we should reject it, to the contrary, it should be intensively spoken about in order to reach good solutions. And, again, we should intensively work on raising the level of media literacy”, says Zulejhić.

    Kulenović supports self-regulation. “I support government intervention maybe only in certain issues that are of legal character. I think that BiH is on a good path in this context, but much work needs to be done so that everyone understands the advantages of self-regulation, not only in the context of ethics and professional standards, but with regards to business confidence as well. Any great involvement of the state can cause more damage than good. Instead of them, it should be the professional community who should come together and find a solution,” concludes Kulenović.


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