by Gary Conway
August 22nd, 2014

Last month, Weber Shandwick released The Digital Life of Journalists in Asia Pacific , the first-ever major survey of journalists across Asia Pacific. Created to understand the online preferences and behaviours of the region’s key media, the survey also achieves something more important. It highlights the bourgeoning online participation of APAC journalists and casts promising light on the health and future of journalism at a time when traditional media business models appear under threat.

Digital has revolutionised the way news is produced, consumed and understood. It has transformed communication flows from shotgun, mass-media approaches to the cleverer, highly-targeted and multi-directional flows we experience now.

Owned, earned and paid media co-exist in synergy to bring each of us a more personalised information experience. The flow of content we receive is rich, and competition for our attention is fierce.

But the pace is frenetic, so we have adapted by learning to accept or reject information at a subconscious level within nanoseconds.  This is why storytelling, along with video and visual literacy, has emerged as critical communication skill.

These skills are now essential to online engagement for brands and companies; good visual storytelling can quickly cut through online noise to strike strong emotional chords within us. But storytelling also potentially exposes us, which is where journalists help. And there is some very compelling science behind this.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman explains that our brains work on two levels: a subconscious/ emotional level works in tandem (usually) with our conscious/rational mind. Storytelling resonates so well because it appeals to the subconscious, sense-making function. It quickly constructs coherent narratives about what’s going on around us from the information and stimuli it receives. Essentially, it is effortless thinking. Hardly surprising then, that we like to let it drive.

But Kahneman cautions that our subconscious is concerned only with the plausibility and coherence of the stories it constructs, and not with the validity or rationality of the information on which these are built. He describes it as a ‘machine for jumping to conclusions’, fundamentally biased to believe and confirm information with no responsibility for fact or validity checking.

Critical assessment is the domain of our rational brain, but this is an additional step we must choose to take. And unfortunately, it demands a much larger investment of our time and mental energy.

In the digital age, we are information rich, but time poor. We’ve responded by processing information faster, but the science says we may be making instantaneous judgements about what we believe and trust using a mental apparatus that doesn’t care about reliability.

Kahneman sums up our dilemma beautifully when he asks: Do you discriminate sufficiently between “I read in the New York Times…” and “I heard at the water cooler?” Decades of his and other research on that very question suggest strongly that we usually can not (or do not).

We need emotional content. And that is why storytelling is so powerful in the digital age. But the price of emotional content must not be rationality and reliability. That’s why journalism is still so important.

As our report highlights, journalists bring independence, objectivity, accuracy and integrity to the communication process. Whether through news or branded content, journalistic rigour helps raise the standard of content found online. When journalists deliver well-researched, rational and reliable information we can trust, they also help protect us from our own mental shortcomings as we rush mentally to process the daily information avalanche.

So when The Digital Life of Journalists in Asia Pacific highlights the growing participation of journalists in the online news making process, we should take great comfort from that. And we should hope that it continues to increase.

Gary Conway is vice-president, Japan, at Weber Shandwick

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