In Defence Of Thailand’s Viral Media

There’s an uneasy co-existence in Thailand between the traditional media – newspaper heavyweights like the Bangkok Post and the NationTV stations and the like – and the emergence of the so-called viral media, where online sites publish popular, shareable content that drive clicks to their sites, making their money from ad revenue.

The viral media tend to take their cues from what’s trending on social media; content is rarely derived from investigative journalism and can edge on the side of ‘low-brow’.

In the other corner, the traditional media sit doing the same as what they have always done – on-the-ground reporting from accredited journalists presented in classic AP style. While eminently respectable, their work can be dry and is inherently less ‘sexy’ than the viral media, who only focus on what’s popular and trending.

In Thailand, as in much of the developed world, viral media is in ascendance: it draws in advertising revenue and pleases the masses that read it.

The traditional media is being left behind, unable and unwilling to evolve into a more profitable business model.

The Bangkok Post published an editorial earlier this week entitled ‘Don’t Dumb Down News’ in which the author warned against traditional media outlets trying to compete with social media platforms.

At issue were the ‘hot’ stories of the week before: a man who found a python attached to his penis while on the loo; a man masturbating in a public van with the help of an aubergine; and the live streaming of a murder suspect threatening to commit suicide in a police stand-off.

“Should traditional journalists go after a similar thread of sensational stories in their struggle to survive a decline,” asks the anonymous columnist.

“Definitely not.”

The author admits that so-called traditional media outlets need to adjust in order to stay relevant, but

“What is certain, however, is that dumbing down content and sensationalising coverage is not the way forward.”

And this is the stumbling block for the evolution of the traditional media: they place themselves on a pedestal above the viral media, according to their own self-adjudicated criteria.

All these viral sites did was spot a story with the potential for huge public interest.

News is not automatically ‘dumb’ just because it involves a penis, masturbation or a suicide stand-off. To dumb something down is to make a complex subject easier for the masses to understand. York Notes for Chaucerian texts, for instance, or these last couple of sentences.

The hot stories of last week weren’t ‘dumbed down’ at all – they were simply distasteful.

And while it’s acceptable not to report on that which you think is uncouth, it’s erroneous to hold yourselves up as the last bastion of ‘real news’ for not doing so.

Rightly or wrongly, those who decides what makes for good news – note, not necessarily good journalism – is readers, who vote with their fingers. They click the headlines for what they want to read and, if that headline happens to be Man Wins Desperate Struggle To Free Penis From Toilet Pythonthen so be it.

What the Post editorial most takes issue with are the TV stations that streamed the suicide stand-off, and the executives of which who apparently justified doing so because they were worried they’d lose their audience to the Facebook Live stream if they didn’t.

While live-stream a suicide stand-off is undeniably distasteful, it’s still inescapably news; in the public interest and happening right at that moment.

Not a story manufactured for sensationalism. Just live news.

The Post editorial concludes that,

“Traditional media will survive if they can prove to the public that they are better than these new, fast and convenient channels in terms of taste, ethics, trustworthiness and sticking to principles, albeit unpopular ones.”

While that’s a noble idea, who is the arbiter of taste, ethics, trustworthiness and principles here?

The traditional media themselves? The companies and institutions advertising in the traditional media?

In living memory, we once lived in a world where news was very carefully managed and censored to provide a curated and tempered view on horrific events. Times have changed.

In the West, it’s still considered distasteful to show pictures of dead bodies in the media – that’s not the case in Asia, and things will change in the West at some point as our tolerance for the distasteful and our demand for unfiltered news increases.

Broadcasting such scenes as the suicide stand-off is a neutral action — but to assume the position as the referee of ethics and integrity is to overstep your authority as a media outlet.

While it’s certainly a romantic notion that that which is ‘better’ will survive if only on the merits of taste and readily-admitted unpopular principles, that’s just not true.

Traditional media will only survive if it learns to adapt, keep and grow its audience, and let’s be honest, keep its advertisers renewing their contracts.

Newspapers aren’t immune from total decline just because they tell their readers that they have ethics, taste and principles. The popular UK-based Independent – so ethical they made their mantra their name – decided to close down all their print operations at the end of March. They’re unlikely to be the only traditional global media outlet forced to take all operations online.

Traditional media deserves to survive the invasion of viral media: Thailand and the world needs quality journalism and reliable reporting that the viral media isn’t providing right now.

But to bemoan those outlets trying to evolve and emulate the success of viral media is to place too much importance on tradition and taste. Taste, ethics and principles aren’t dead, but adaption and evolution is mandatory in this survival of the fittest.


Featured image is by Ognian Mladenov and used under a Creative Commons licence