Net Neutrality, John Oliver and the future of news

In What Reporters Need to Know About Covering Net Neutrality, I highlight some of the arguments around how reporters in any medium should cover hard topics with multiple angles.

As in almost all stories, things were cut from this. One point lost for space involved how the most pointed media coverage was against Net neutrality in 2010. That’s according to research from Zack Stiegler, an associate professor of communications media at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and editor of the book Regulating the Web. He and a colleague examined 16 mainstream media sources in print, radio and broadcast, and coverage was either neutral or characterized Net neutrality as government overreach.

What I didn’t get into much is whether reporters should be advocates. I cite, briefly, a Berkman Center media cloud showing who influenced what when it came to Net Neutrality. Not surprisingly, John Oliver’s now famous (or infamous) takedown of the cable business was the single most influential content produced on Net neutrality last year. He had impact most journalists wish they could have.

For all his influence, I was surprised to see Oliver’s YouTube clip received only 198 links. That seems like a tiny amount for something millions of people watched on YouTube. He had a lot of shares: 21,720 Tweets [see pages 24 and 26 of the report, Score Another One for the Internet]. Oliver’s video had the most links, but was only the fifth most Tweeted item.

Tweets have a lot more scale than links. Only four posts received 100 or more links. The top 10 Tweets all surpassed 10,000 shares. As an aside, I wonder what that suggests about Google’s PageRank algorithm; it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of linking to work with.

For journalists, the link economy was the only place traditional media stories held their own with advocates and humorists. For tweets and other social media, balanced media stories were not as popular as advocacy journalism like that of The Verge or as the advocacy groups themselves. Official sources like the FCC and the White House were also popular on social media.

But journalism of any sort struggled to be noticed compared to Oliver and his ilk. Notable was The Verge, which had several of the top stories when measured by tweet shares. Then again, The Verge reads like it’s trying to be the Jon Stewart of tech news (or, to be higher-minded, like Lincoln Steffens, the great muckraker who openly provoked readers to advocate against government corruption).

As the report notes,

Parody and satire played a particularly strong role in communicating the issues, in promoting awareness, and in generating interest in a complex and highly technical issue. John Oliver, The Oatmeal, Funny or Die and College Humor were all popular touch points in the outreach campaign.

Must we all become purveyors of faux news to get people to pay attention to us? I’ll be convinced we must if John Oliver is able to make his latest campaign work. This time, he’s out to get people to overturn portions of The Patriot Act. Oliver even goes to Moscow to interview Edward Snowden, in an effort to try to get people to reach out against the renewal of the Patriot Act (things get really interesting around the 29 minute mark). If Oliver can do this, we traditional journalists may have to start working on our stand-up acts.