News media sources today battle each other to be first to the story and first to publish. With the advent of modern communications technologies and the Internet, this battle has reached a level of dangerous speed.
Much of the inspiration for this post comes from the excellent book No Time To Think by Rosenberg and Feldman. It is a eloquent, intense, and humorous commentary on the dangers of media speed in our modern world. It is a highly recommended read for people interested in the flow of information in today’s society. Rosenberg and Feldman demonstrated how many areas of life are affected markedly by this increase in media speed.
The intense speed of today’s media is causing it to make compounding mistakes. Facts are reported and re-reported without being checked. One of the results is that a false story can spread wide and far. In fact, often wider and farther than the correction to the story that comes later. Anyone familiar with internet news knows that the speed at which ‘breaking news’ can travel is nothing short of dizzying. What used to take days or weeks in the media of previous generations might take minutes or seconds today. An excellent quote on this subject from the book is: “Never has falsehood in america had such a large megaphone.”
There is a psychological effect known as confirmation bias. This is the psychological effect stating that people tend to favor information that agrees with their preconceptions, regardless of whether it is true or not1 . Rosenberg and Feldman discuss how this seems to be related to the habit among news journalists today to generally not check a second source for their information because the first one agrees with their preconceptions. Fact-checking is an absolutely necessary part of primary journalism, and it is an area that is currently lacking the attention that it deserves in mainstream media.
Why so much speed?
A journalist they interviewed in the book said that news media is trying to move at the same speed as its audience. He is basically saying that at least part of the increase in speed is being driven by what keeps people’s attention in this day and age. The inevitable question is whether news media is responding to a a change in the way humans expect to be served information, or whether the news media was instrumental in driving this change in the first place?
Rosenberg and Feldman don’t try to lay all of the blame for these changes on the news media, but they do go into exquisite detail about how news organizations have deliberately created a market for the fastest possible forms of news. What is the fastest possible form of news? If you thought that ‘live’ is as fast as you can get, you would be right, but that doesn’t mean that the news media will stop there. What is even faster than reporting live? Report things before they happen.
News before it happens
How do you report something before it happens? You wave your hands in front of a crystal ball and make the world pay to hear its fortune. All of todays news media do this, under the guise of discussing issues with ‘experts’. Rosenberg and Feldman are unequivocal when they state that this isn’t news, only opinion masquerading as news.
Less real news
We can look at the time crunch from two directions. On one side we have the news consumer barraged with hurriedly prepared stories at a faster rate than ever. At one point in the book Charles Feldman says, “How can you have an understanding of anything if you’ve had only one minute of explanation?” How is this affecting our views of political candidates and their platforms? Instead of being presented with the national and global policies, platforms and issues at hand, we are blitzed with sound bites, opinion, and hype.
Pressure on journalists
On the other side we have the ever-accelerating field of journalism. Journalists are required to produce more than ever, and do it sooner. Rosenberg and Feldman estimate that the output of content per journalist has increased around two to five times. With the advent of the internet, journalists are often expected to write for online articles and blog posts in addition to their normal workload for print. They are also being increasingly transformed into multimedia journalists who are encouraged to post video footage related to their stories online.
A bad situation
In short, we have an ever-accelerating journalism cycle that is making mistakes, shortening our attention spans, presenting opinion as news, and trivializing our political debates. The only reliable cure is media literacy, and we all need to learn it. Fast.
- The Guardian: When the scientific evidence is unwelcome, people try to reason it away. Accessed October 15th, 2010. [↩]