The rise of skeptical reading

“Unlike technology, culture changes slowly. But when it does, the consequences of these changes stay for a long time.”

There is a quiet revolution in the making. It’s about how people make sense of the news. Barely perceptible amidst the loudness of commentary about bots, trolls, fake news, echo chambers, filter bubbles, confirmation bias, artificial intelligence, and so on is the realization that readers, listeners, viewers, and users are becoming ever more skeptical about the information they encounter in the news and social media. And that’s a good thing. Skepticism is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for the emergence of sustainable solutions regarding a potential state of misinformation marking contemporary politics and culture.

As far as media and journalism go, 2017 has been a transition year. Practitioners, analysts, and scholars have grappled with a collective sense that a fundamental dislocation has emerged in how the news are reported and distributed. While there is some consensus about a massive shift, there is much less certainty about what it exactly consists of, its causes, and its consequences. The initial cultural reflex has been a narrative about technological disruption of old conventions that have long governed the production and circulation of news, thus ushering a new regime of misinformation.

Often lost in this dystopian narrative is an account of how people make sense of an increasingly digitally created and curated new world of news. This, in turn, has led to an implicit overestimation of the power of technology and a parallel underestimation of the interpretive agency of news consumers. It would appear that readers of twenty-first century news can be more easily manipulated than those of the previous century. But are they? I suspect not. If anything, it might be the opposite.

For the past twelve months, my collaborators and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with a broad sample of consumers of news, entertainment, and technology. Among other things, we have asked them about issues such as fake news and trust in the information they see on the social media platforms they use and news media they consume on a regular basis. An account published previously on this site showed the existence of four mechanisms guiding people’s reading practices: strategic curation, mindful processing, emotional interpretation, and subjective attachment. What has emerged in conjunction with the combination of these mechanisms is a heightened degree of skepticism.

There is skepticism about the news media. For instance, one of the interviewees said that she is “concerned about the news programming. I think when I was younger I trusted it implicitly, which probably was not a good idea when I look back. But some of my trust and faith in the news and the news community is not what it was. I’m not trusting. I’m wondering what they’re leaving off.” Similar idea recurred in multiple interviews. “I think there has been a shift in the news and I feel like the news is not, no matter what you listen to, it’s not completely giving you both sides. It either gives you one way of looking at it and doesn’t really make you a critical thinker. I think that before, maybe you were getting news that was more critical thinking and you had to analyze if it’s correct or not correct…There is definitely been a shift in the news.”

There is also skepticism about the information that people see on social media. One person commented that on Facebook “it’s hard to decipher what’s real and what’s not. So, like, if I have just seen an article on Facebook, then I might go to the Internet and try to find that same headline. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would read it on Facebook.” Another interviewee added, “I’m very familiar with my friends’ posting habits and ignore three quarters of what’s on there because of that.”

How do people deal with this increased level of skepticism?

They are more mindful of the provenance and treatment of information. One of interviewees commented that she “started to pay attention to where the news is from because of fake news.” Others singled out specific sources. For instance, one commented “CNN used to have a fairly good reputation but they, too, report rumors without really confirming things and then they go back, maybe in the middle of a program, and retract what they said.” Similar patterns apply to social media: “I usually check things now that catch my eye so if I think it’s too dramatic to be true, I’ll look into it.”

They also check multiple sources. For instance, “I tend to look to see if the different political—just taking it from that point of view, then the different political view—or messaging sources converge, they both say, both agree on the same basic facts about something.” Finally, they use search engines to do their own fact-checking. “I don’t share news articles very often but if I do I probably try to read three or four articles on the topic. I’ve taking to generally Googling things just to try to get a concept of it.”

Taken together, these responses, combined with the overall skeptical stance, are the kernel of an ongoing revolution in interpretive practices. It is more quiet transformation than that of how technology has affected the production and distribution of information. But it is no less fundamental and likely more sustainable, since it has been shaping the cultural foundations of sensemaking. As such, it will be a key source of collective antibodies against the perils of misinformation.

By emerging organically from within the social fabric, these interpretive antibodies will be more durable than any technical fixes, and also a necessary complement to their possible efficacy. Unlike technology, culture changes slowly. But when it does, the consequences of these changes stay for a long time. So here’s to a 2018 full of skeptical readings of the news!

Pablo J. Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Paul Ford   Go global

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Jake Levine   The return to now

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Burt Herman   Things get real

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts