Why news alerts are not giving you the whole story

Your phone just pinged and you checked the news alert. You may be up-to-the-minute, but are you well-informed?

The question is prompted by some research done this month in the UK, into how people have been keeping ‘informed’ about the election that just ended in a crushing win for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Millions of us have news apps on our smartphones, giving us ‘push notifications’ about the latest news.

While some people will read the full story associated with the notification, research shows that the majority of push alerts are not acted upon. In other words, the one-line headlines may be the only perspective people get, and those one-liners drive their opinions and actions.

In early December, the Guardian newspaper did some research that revealed for the first time how smartphone users consumed election news. Some of the subjects of the research read no news articles at all, instead gaining all of their understanding from headlines on social media, push alerts, and other snippets.

A group of voters allowed their phone use to be recorded for three days:

  • One subject checked out claims about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s wealth by going to a website called Jihadi Watch.
  • One participant followed the BBC leaders’ interviews purely by watching videos of party supporters chanting the Labour leader’s name outside the venue.
  • Another person read 29 headlines but clicked on just six and only read three articles to the end.
  • Several participants were observed sharing articles on Facebook without clicking the links, and writing comments before looking at the articles.

“You’re no longer asking: what’s going on in the world today?”

“News is becoming intermingled with entertainment,” said Damon De Ionno of the agency Revealing Reality, who ran the project. “You’re no longer asking: what’s going on in the world today? It’s very different – you want to be entertained.”

Now the Guardian has published the results of a follow-up survey, which should perhaps make us all ask ourselves ‘how well informed am I?’

The newspaper analysed push alerts from nine of the biggest UK news apps. Their conclusion: notifications about Johnson’s Conservative party tended to be positive, while notifications about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party were overwhelmingly negative.

One newspaper, the Telegraph, sent out 40 push alerts that were negative for Labour, without a single positive story. In the same period they sent out net 18 that were positive for the Conservatives.

The Guardian itself, which is run by a Trust set up with the intention, in part, of ‘safeguarding journalistic freedom and liberal values’, ended up being even-handed in its alerts about Labour and net 2 negative about the Conservatives.

The fact that newspapers have a point of view will surprise no-one. Papers like the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express and the Sun have historically generally been pro-Conservative, the Mirror pro-Labour. But those political preferences used to be mainly restricted to the editorials and the opinion columns. The news coverage was less partial. Now that has changed, and – at least from this research – news is increasingly being used to support the politics and the interests of the newspaper owners.

The three cautionary tales emerging from this research are:

  1. many of us are increasingly content to base our knowledge of world events simply on one- or two-line headlines
  2. those simple headlines no longer reflect the even-handed approach to reporting both sides of an issue that we may have expected from newspapers and broadcasters in the past
  3. if we do research at all, it will likely be from sites that reinforce our existing prejudices

One example stands out as a warning of how we risk being manipulated if we don’t scratch below the surface of the headlines. The Guardian reports: “Both the Express and Daily Mail pushed out the claim that, in the Mail’s phrasing: ‘Labour activist PUNCHES Matt Hancock’s adviser at Leeds hospital’. In fact, no such punch was thrown, and video released less than an hour later showed the adviser walking into a protester’s arm.”

But neither publication sent any sort of follow-up noting the error, and for anyone who did not seek out other sources, the initial notification may be the only version they considered.

Bottom line? The proliferation of social media and the changing nature of news coverage puts the pressure clearly on us, as consumers of information, to dig beyond a single news alert or tweet or Facebook post before we accept it.

We should apply the same skepticism to news alerts that we would apply to those misspelled emails that tell us we’ve inherited millions from a relative we’ve never heard of and all we need to do is click a link or send a few dollars to cover administration costs.