Watchdog Blog

Lawrence Meyer: The Newsroom on Steroids

Posted at 3:43 pm, July 26th, 2010
Lawrence Meyer Mug

Let’s state the obvious at the outset: The Internet is a miraculous medium that makes it possible for people to communicate with each other from almost anywhere in the world, and it makes it possible for news organizations to report the latest news virtually as it happens to anyone who has a computer and Internet access, which is now a gazillion people.

One more obvious point: News organizations place a premium on reporting events first. That’s just the way it is. Intuitively it makes sense. No newspaper would go around boasting “You heard it here second.” I worked for newspapers for 35 years, and I never could overcome the chagrin of being beaten on a story.

Having acknowledged those two points—or, as the current usage goes, “That said”—can super fast be too much of a good thing?

The correct answer is yes. “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have,” the French philosopher Emile Chartier said. Haste, as your mother used to remind you, makes waste. Compressing time frames leads to a kind of intellectual myopia.

The Internet facilitates instantaneous reporting. Even if old-line news organizations, like newspapers, still put stories through their standard editing and vetting process, plenty of new news organizations truncate the process to take advantage of the Internet’s immediacy. What a medium makes possible too often becomes what it makes actual.

When speed is the only or even the primary consideration, the first victim isn’t necessarily accuracy, although that clearly can be the case, but depth. Almost by definition, speed and depth can’t coexist. Thoughtful journalism isn’t something that can be churned out while trying to beat the clock or meet a quota. In-depth reporting takes time, and time is exactly what a reporter doesn’t have if speed is the priority.

The Shirley Sherrod disgrace, which wrongly and recklessly defamed her, might be an example of the dangers of too hasty reporting, but it’s a better example of a complete breakdown in reporting that hardly deserves to be called journalism at all. Absent the Internet, the incident may well not have happened.

Not only does news often come too fast in the Internet age, but there’s too much of it and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what’s really important, what’s merely important and what’s irrelevant.

Speed is only one reason why we’re being overwhelmed by “news”. Another reason is the infinite capacity of the Internet.

Newspapers are limited by the number of pages they can print, which is primarily a function of how much advertising is sold, but also press capacity. Television and radio are constrained by time.

If everything is reported in the same breathless way, it can be difficult to judge.

Now, with the virtually infinite capacity of the Internet, information is limitless. No triage is necessary because the space is infinite. Infinite space could be a good thing, an opportunity to present well-reported, in-depth stories. But if a premium is put on speed, getting it first, the opportunity for in-depth reporting is lost. And the unlimited space allows for an indiscriminate display of stories—some, many or all of which may be inconsequential.

The challenge for the reader then becomes to sift through all of that to discover which stories are important and which are not—a challenge that becomes all the more difficult when the reader is presented, as is so often the case with Internet news, with a list of headlines without much difference in emphasis. So the reader, rather than the news organization, has to decide what’s important. That is a service that newspapers provide with their display of news. The reader may not always agree with the newspaper’s judgment, but at least the newspaper is making the effort.

Another characteristic of the Internet is the tendency of Internet news sites to target their reporting to narrow interests aimed at a particular audience rather than the broad range that newspapers and their Internets sites try to attract. Internet sites need to have an identity to attract eyeballs.

A general site, designed to attract a general audience, dilutes the identity. As a result, a reader is forced to go from one specialized site to another in order to read about a variety of topics. The busy reader, having lingered too long at one site or another, may not have time to do that. So it becomes more difficult, rather than less, to stay informed on a broad range of subjects.

With the Internet then, we may know a great deal about what happens in a particular area without knowing why. And, at the same time, because our own time is limited, we may wind up knowing nothing about a great many things that affect us in very real ways—until it’s too late.

What we seem to be trending toward is a news system that threatens to turn journalists into wire service reporters—except that wire service reporters have professional standards. Whether or not the new Internet journalists do is still an open question.

This column also appears on Disappearing Ink, Lawrence Meyer’s blog.

3 Responses to “The Newsroom on Steroids”

  1. Darlene says:

    When entertainers and talking heads are listened to on TV as being purveyors of truth, journalism is dead. The ratings are all that matters and when the TV news is copied from those same ill informed showmen, rumor and lies become facts. Where is Edward R. Murrow today?

    The Internet just makes it easier to disseminate distortions and outright lies and present them as facts. There is so much garbage out there and most people don’t bother to use Fact Check or Snopes and it goes around the world before you can sneeze.

  2. Elizabeth Rogers says:

    I absolutely agree. Few of us have the time, inclination or skills to pursue detailed research and fact-checking on our own. Experienced, well-informed, ethical journalists used to do that BEFORE they published their articles. There were news editors not so very long ago, too, just in case. Now, the entertainers (what else would you call Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck? They certainly aren’t news reporters!) hold sway, to the utter detriment of “news” and “truth”.

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