We need news organizations to help our curiosity by signaling how their stories fit into the larger themes on which a sincere capacity for interest depends. To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to “put” it, which means some way of connecting it to an issue we already know how to care about. A section of the human brain might be pictured as a library in which information is shelved under certain fundamental categories. Most of what we hear about day to day easily signals where in the stacks it should go and gets immediately and unconsciously filed: News of an affair is put on the heavily burdened shelf dedicated to How Relationships Work, a story of the sudden sacking of a CEO slots into our evolving understanding of Work & Status.
But the stranger or the smaller stories become, the harder the shelving process grows. What we colloquially call “feeling bored” is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place.
Alain de Botton, The Future of News, The Week.
The piece is an excerpt from his new book The News: A User’s Manual, which we’re currently reading and will have thoughts to tumble about soon. In the meantime, it’s an important conversation to have. Here’s a take on some key points from a review in The Guardian:
These are all worthy areas, to be sure. They are what intelligent, concerned citizens ought to want to know about the world that surrounds them. Perhaps, two centuries ago, the general populace could manage without The News most of the time. But now it’s omnipresent, inescapable and, on this thesis, stuck in too many arcane ruts, pandering to fear and pessimism, relishing disappointment.
Yet you can’t make the whole journey merely by playing the dissatisfied consumer.
[…] News starts with you, your family, your interests, your street. It expands via TV, captured by the people and lives you see on screen. (It was more interested in foreign coverage when it seemed the cold war could destroy us all at the push of a button). It is a box of fragments you try to assemble for yourself, rather than a finished jigsaw. Which means that it can’t be pinned down in a handy user’s guide. But at least it’s worth thinking about constantly, fine, frisky, philosophical minds applied. For the construct is you.
And so, to our year of bungles: the New Jersey waitress who received a homophobic comment on the receipt from a party she had served; comedian Kyle Kinane’s Twitter beef with Pace Salsa; the Chinese husband who sued his wife for birthing ugly children after he learned she’d had plastic surgery; Samsung paying Apple $1 billion in nickels…
…These all had one thing in common: They seemed too tidily packaged, too neat, “too good to check,” as they used to say, to actually be true. Any number of reporters or editors at any of the hundreds of sites that posted these Platonic ideals of shareability could’ve told you that they smelled, but in the ongoing decimation of the publishing industry, fact-checking has been outsourced to the readers. Not surprisingly—as we saw with the erroneous Reddit-spawned witch-hunt around the Boston Marathon bombing—readers are terrible at fact-checking. And this, as it happens, is good for business because it means more shares, more clicks.
This is not a glitch in the system. It is the system. Readers are gullible, the media is feckless, garbage is circulated around, and everyone goes to bed happy and fed. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti admitted as much when explaining, that, when he’s hiring, he looks for “people who really understand how information is shared on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and other emerging platforms, because that is in some cases as important as, you know, having traditional reporting talent.” Upworthy editorial director Sara Critchfield seconded the notion. “We reject the idea that the media elite or people who have been trained in a certain way somehow have the monopoly on editorial judgment.”
Luke O’Neil, Esquire. The Year We Broke The Internet.
Or as Ryan Grim, Huffington Post Washington Bureau Chief, told The New York Times, “If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.”
The FJP’s thoughts on fact checking? You can find those here.
But the most important question for this “family album” will be to what extent we can enlarge our notion of family. If viewed as happening to the “other,” then much of this imagery—whether joyous or painful—will be ignored by those not directly affected. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as mutually dependent, both happy for each other’s successes and attentive to each other’s welfare, then even the harshest imagery created by communities of their own distress can serve a purpose.
Fred Ritchin, professor at NYU and co-director of the Photography & Human Rights Program at Tisch in an article for TIME LightBox on Hurricane Sandy, One Year Later.
He discusses the growing practice of and potential for communities to portray themselves through photography, be it professionals having access to a larger audience through the web, or amateurs using their mobile phones to capture events.
Instagram, for example, allows professionals and amateurs alike to immediately upload images; during Hurricane Sandy last year, ten photos tagged to the storm were uploaded every second; 800,000 pictures were uploaded in all. In contrast, the monumental, multi-year Farm Security Administration program created during the New Deal that focused on American rural poverty with photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn, produced roughly 250,000 images total.
While Instagram as a photographic and journalistic medium has its critics, one of its positive features is the fact that users can see only one photo at a time on their phone, which, Ritchin points out, provides the viewer a type of respite from the visual chaos of the web. At a time when increasing numbers of citizens around the world are documenting everything from war to human rights atrocities to their daily lives, a coherent way to filter this imagery is missing. Not all disasters are the same, he writes:
Whereas Hurricane Sandy was a catastrophe that those in the Northeastern United States suffered through together, sharing each other’s vulnerability, other circumstances may be more problematic. What might have been the result if those trapped inside the World Trade Towers on September 11 had possessed cellphone cameras? Would it have been enlightening for others on the outside if they were able to distribute images of their terrible predicament, or would large amounts of such first-person imagery have provoked an ugly voyeurism amounting to re-victimization? Would these images have further increased the trauma for a horrified, largely powerless public to even more intolerable levels, and with it the calls for vengeance?
Our task is two-fold: 1) “to develop practical applications for this abundance of imagery” and 2) to find ways to make this “family album” that stretches the world over accessible to us, in our media consumption cycles as something other than an overload of imagery lest it cause “an even greater distancing from events” due to our inability to process the abundance.
All that in mind, view the photo essay "Hurricane Sandy, One Year Later: Self-Portraits of Communities in Distress" here.
Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.
Jeff Jarvis, Maybe News is Just More Efficient, BuzzMachine.
FJP: Jarvis goes on to discuss a hypothetical news service that accomplishes this task of efficiency by serving the public news that uses a (very) smart algorithm to bring each reader a hyper-personalized news stream. An obvious issue with this is selection bias, and the possibility that one will end up consuming a very narrow slice of the perspective pie (read about the perils of algorithmic curation here). Also see the comments below Jarvis’s article for some interesting points made by readers.
Laughing at those who read about Miley Cyrus is America’s second-favorite pastime, right after reading about Miley Cyrus.
New York Magazine, Final Tally: Americans Were 12 Times More Interested in Miley Cyrus Than Syria.
Background: Outbrain, the content discovery platform, crunched numbers across its network of publishers to compare reader interest in stories about Syria versus those about Miley Cyrus:
Globally, there were almost 2.5 times as many available stories on Syria as there were on Miley Cyrus. Yet consumption of those Miley stories outpaced Syria by a factor of 8-to-1. And in the United States? 12-to-1!
Before those outside the States start casting their serious news stones, take stock: “Interest in the starlet significantly outpaced Syria in England, Australia, France, Germany, and every other nation in Outbrain’s analysis — except Israel and Russia.”
We just happen to fetishize her a bit more.
Earlier this week, a friend asked me what the best way to get caught up with what’s going on in Syria is. I’m not a fan of most cable channels because they tend to make one feel compelled to have an opinion, jump in on the debate, or pass judgement before being fully informed. So here’s a reading round-up:
And then there’s Mother Jones’ guide to the debate, which is always an easy, and comprehensive read, the Washington Post’s 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask, and Children’s BBC, which, yes, is for children, but for those trying to catch up, helpful.
Diving Deeper/Interesting Tangential Thoughts:
If you want to spent some time digging into the past, present and future coverage on the issues, go to directly to Syria Deeply, and/or the NY Times Crisis in Syria page, from which some of the above links were selected.
Luckily, now, truthinews is here to usher in a new standard of broadcasting. First, we ask you what you think the news is, then, report that news you told us back to you, then take an insta-twitter poll to see if you feel informed by yourself, which we will read on the air until we reach that golden day when we are so responsive to our viewers, that cable news is nothing but a mirror, a logo and a news crawl.
Stephen Colbert, The Word, June 24, 2013.
FJP: Colbert essentially speaks of cognitive dissonance—the distressing state we experience when we’re faced with opinions that don’t fit with what we already believe. If interested in what this has to do with news consumption, we recommend reading Dean Miller’s chapter (entitled Literacy after the Front Page) in Page One, the companion book to the (somewhat glorifying) documentary about the NY Times. Miller is the director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University. Here’s an excerpt:
Merely teaching people how to find reliable information is inadequate if they can’t open their minds to new information. Advances in neuroscience have documented the fragility of memory, the suggestibility of perception and the extent to which our own biases can prevent us from hearing or remembering discomfiting facts, much less seeking them out. The more we learn about these reactions to cognitive dissonance, the clearer it becomes that if we don’t challenge Americans about what they believe—and how they reach conclusions—they’ll never know what they don’t know.
If you watch people shop in a grocery store, 95% of the time they are scanning the shelves for the packaging, making the choices on that before they turn the bottle around and look at the nutrition information. People choose their media that way too. So you can have a piece of media with the exact same nutritional value in it with different packaging and the consumer is going to choose the one that appeals to them most.
Upworthy’s Editorial Director Sara Critchfield, as quoted in this Nieman Lab article on Upworthy’s social success.
FJP: Today’s must read. It’s a thought-provoking piece on social curation and media packaging that not only breaks down a successful curation methodology, but also sheds light on the fact that the way we consume media is not unlike the way we consume food (see: Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet).
We get stories much faster than we can make sense of them, informed by cellphone pictures and eyewitnesses found on social networks and dubious official sources like police scanner streams. Real life moves much slower than these technologies. There’s a gap between facts and comprehension, between finding some pictures online and making sense of how they fit into a story. What ends up filling that gap is speculation. On both Twitter and cable, people are mostly just collecting little factoids and thinking aloud about various possibilities. They’re just shooting the shit, and the excrement ends up flying everywhere and hitting innocent targets.
Apparently, the more mobile devices you have, the higher your perceived value of media is. According to BCG’s recent study, Through the Mobile Looking Glass, when you get a second mobile device, there is a 41% increase in perceived media value, a 40% increase when you get a third, and a 30% increase when you get a fourth.
Which makes sense, if you’re spending your days juggling four mobile devices and consuming media on all of them. What could be more important than the information nuggets you’re eating all day long?
Hopefully a lot of things, considering that the nutritional value of all the information we’re consuming could be very low.
The Guardian’s Rolf Dobelli explains:
In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.
Dobelli goes on to provide illustrative examples of the following:
Dobelli wants us to go without news. To be clear, he’s not arguing against ALL journalism. He supports investigative journalism, long-form, and books, but for the last four years has entirely removed the consumption of other (shorter) news from his diet. He’s since experienced: “less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, and more insights.”
FJP: Firstly, journalists simply can’t afford that kind of lifestyle and anyone active on a social network can’t avoid it. And great, illuminating, informative, well-reported, well-presented journalism is out there. But if we set aside the details of his argument (over which we could debate at length), Dobelli’s larger point (that our news consumption habits aren’t very healthy), coupled with the fact that we of the mobile generations perceive the value of media so highly, raises the most important question of all for people living in 2013: How can we construct healthy, anxiety-free, informative, enjoyable news diets that help us live better lives and understand the world better? News literacy. Just like we ought to do with food, practice consuming with balance and intention.—Jihii
Part of the reason why many people (particularly geeks) dislike talking on the phone is that it forces both sides to be present at the same time, instead of allowing a user to consume or respond to the information at their own pace — or multi-task while they are doing so.
Ingram is talking about synchronous vs. asynchronous communication (ie: phone vs. e-mail or text) and how the proliferation of different kinds of communication technology has allowed people to develop different affinities for communication etiquette (depending on age/industry/how connected you are).
Both are interesting reads. The bottom line is that people have different preferences and we need to keep that in mind when we communicate with each other. Bilton, for example, writes of his distaste for communication that wastes your time (ie: leaving a voicemail when you can just send a text). Ingram, in a similar-but-different example, writes of the patience we need to develop for those who might not be at the same technological level we are (ie: don’t expect your parents to text you if they are just getting used to e-mail).
Sort of Related: Our recent post on How to Tweet Like a Buddha. It’s essentially a list of tips on how to be mindful on Twitter. How to remember that behind the screen is human being with a particular set of values, habits, preferences, and a particular level of knowledge, tech literacy and access to communication. So, in the same way we are mindful of how the person in front of us is receiving the information we convey, it’s worth being mindful of the person behind the screen. It’s an important mindfulness, I believe, that is sorely lacking in our attempts to navigate the technological literacy divides of our time.—Jihii