Saturday, January 30, 2010

Journalism and short-attention-span politics

One of the central ideas we've been talking about in my advanced journalism class so far this semester is the changing nature of journalism, especially how it's evolved away from a traditional top-down, institutionally controlled model for selecting and creating the news report.

The central concept behind the change is "on demand." Audiences have embraced, and come to expect, accessing media presentations in an on-demand way. With an entire library of songs on an iPod, music lovers can program their listening rather than waiting for their favorite song to pop up on radio. DVR makes it exceptionally easy to time-shift television viewing so you can watch what you want, when you want. Netflix delivers movies right to you, or even lets you watch them online (saving even a walk to the mailbox).

With regard to journalism this means a shift way from the "institutional" model, in which readers/viewers were locked into absorbing a presentation based on what the journalists said ought to be in it -- delivered to the doorstep at 6 a.m. or to the TV screen at 6 and 11. (Usually this is referred to as the gatekeeper model). Now, with access to a far greater range of choices for reporting and presentation, audiences can create their own reports through aggregation (e.g. Google and Yahoo collections), surfing to their favorite sites, subscribing to RSS feeds, following media organizations on Twitter and mobile updates, etc. Journalists don't determine the news report an individual consumer sees; consumers determine it for themselves. (And, increasingly, they help create it. But that's another matter.)

On balance this is a good thing, but not without a certain down side. With so many choices, it's nearly impossible to avoid attenuating our attention to any one of them. As we get lost in the "flow" it becomes difficult to pay sufficient attention to complicated matters. That's the subject of an interesting column by Charles Blow in today's (Sat. Jan. 30) New York Times.

The column is mostly about how President Obama presents his thoughts to the public on important ideas of the day, reflecting on the recent State of the Union address. But at the end, Blow has some idea about how that connects to news ecosystem and the way citizens access and react to the news of the day. Blow's comments include:

  • "Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks. Sad but true."
  • "We subsist on Twitter twaddle ... (where) thoughts are amputated at 140 characters."
  • "The most trusted 'newsman' may well be a comedian (Jon Stewart), and stars of the 'most trusted news network' (Fox) may well be a comedian’s dream."

Blow's comments remind us that it's important to make sure that somehow -- despite the emphasis on in-demand, in-the-moment, flow-related journalism -- reporting and presentation don't become so reductionist that they harm rather than help our society's ability to address important issues of the day.

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