The Ethics of Content Creation

ethics of content creationEveryone preaches that the key to customer acquisition and retention is providing content with real value. If you’re a media production company, that means telling stories and creating pieces that give something valuable to your audience. Your viewers and readers should walk away from any one of your posts with any inherently useful nugget of knowledge, whether it be a simple recipe or a proposed perspective.

The Facebook Challenge

Many sites and brands go about producing their content nowadays in a frenzied rush to compete for their audiences’ divided attention. In this age of content overflow, where the quantity of posts you share a day is more important than the quality of each (see: Buzzfeed), it’s what must be done, right?

The way Facebook’s newsfeed works, the most reliable way to get yourself in front of your own Page’s fans is to post so much that something sneaks through. Then, they like ONE post, and Facebook’s algorithm goes on to push more of your shouting-from-the-rooftops in front of that person. Because of how Facebook pits regular users against paying advertisers, our attention shifts from the content itself to its impact. But even then, we’re measuring the numerical impact in shares, likes, and comments.

The Problem that Arises

Worse than becoming a meaningless onslaught that is easily ignored, your media hosing can become a source of contention and conflict between you and your audience. The content we all intended to wholeheartedly connect us with our community rapidly evolves from olive branch into double-edged sword. It’s unwise and more importantly, unethical to disregard the implications of your words and the meanings they present to your audience.

We often reach for the low-hanging fruit, relying on click-baity headlines and descriptions that lure people in. “You’ll never guess this,” one headline reads. “5 things you didn’t know about ____” another list sleazily boasts. We all fall for it. That’s how the format proliferated so quickly and broadly.

A CASE STUDY: The Bon Appetit Incident

A recent event neatly showcases the pitfalls of this systematic underpinning of assumed-mindlessness of our audiences. The food magazine, Bon Appetit, made the mistake of posting a minute-long video on Facebook of a white restaurant owner in Philadelphia explaining his “best practices” for eating pho with the caption “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.” (The original article and video have since been removed)

Usually, a bold assumption of widespread ignorance like that garners curiosity and interest enough to earn you a decent click through rate. Maybe some comments of disbelief or even outrage. But for the most part, a handful of 40-somethings who get their kicks slurping up pho at the strip mall will slap you some praise for the insight.

The Big Pho’k Up

BA’s big mistake was in their selection of another country’s national dish. A dish whose roots are so deeply ingrained in that people’s history that you don’t think of them without getting a whiff of its aromatic broth in the process. A dish that Vietnamese people used to lift themselves up by the bootstraps with when they arrived in the US and allowed dozens of little restaurants to crop up to support these newcomers and their families. They dared to barely acknowledge this dish’s history and outright ignored the dish’s people, instead giving credence to a complete outsider to the realm.

The backlash was immediate and immense. People (of many backgrounds, not just Vietnamese) pointed out the hypocrisy of the video and the ridiculousness of having someone not remotely Vietnamese in heritage or culture claim to be an authority of another people’s cuisine. BA didn’t know how to respond. The chef didn’t know how to respond. At first, comments were deleted. Then entire posts. Both attempted to recede from the spotlight that was following them after ardently called for it, and failed to escape the limelight.

The Sloppy Mop Up

A few days later, BA emerged from its cave of shame to address the angry internet mob, complete with digital pitchforks and gifs of torches. They issued a half-hearted apology that framed the post as misconstrued instead of the gross oversight that it was. The chef has also continued to wrongly slander other chefs in the area and neither have tried to reach out to the people they’ve wronged (namely, their audiences and patrons) to learn how to right their wrongs or prevent such missteps from happening again.

This is a classic sweep-it-under-the-rug scenario where someone’s bound to step on the broken glass of these shattered relationships at a later date. No one acknowledged the elephant carcass left in the room; BA had effectively invited a bunch of fringe-friends over and then told them they didn’t know a damn thing, but BA had a guy who could fix that.

Real Connections

As tired as this sounds, what our audiences really want is authenticity. In real relationships, no one likes a know-it-all. How would you respond if the guy next to you asked, “Hey, want to know a cool thing?” versus saying “Hey, I bet you didn’t know this!” Both invoke curiosity, except the prior is assumedly posed by an earnest person trying to share knowledge while the latter is most likely presented by someone who assumes they know more/better than you do.

When you take the second route, you forfeit the give-take nature of your relationship. Potential conversations are more likely shut down by the tone. As a publisher or brand, your greatest goal is to foster an open relationship with your audience, where you can learn as much from them as they gain from you.

This concept of authenticity is especially important when we make mistakes. Like all relationships, the one we have with our audience is a tenuous one. It requires finesse and sincerity. Behind the cover photos, likes, and shares, we’re really trying to reach people. And when you make a mistake, own up to it, understand what you did wrong, why it was wrong, and figure out best to not do it again.

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