Toward a Slow-News Movement


candlesIn the minutes and hours after an Army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, last week, the media floodgates opened in a now-standard way. A torrent of news reports and commentary poured from the scene, the immediate community and the Pentagon, amplified by corollary data, informed commentary and rank speculation from journalists, bloggers, podcasters, Tweeters, texters and more.

Also standard in this age of fast news was the quality of the early information: utterly unreliable, and mostly wrong. The shooter was dead; no he wasn’t. There were two accomplices; no there weren’t. And so on. (See Greg Marx’s “Jumping to Confusion” at CJR, and Glenn Greenwald’s “media orgy” post at Salon.)

This was not, as several critics have claimed, a failure of citizen journalism. (That the most prominent such accusation came from a web-news operation that is notorious for its rumor-mongering and fact-challenged ways is too rich for words, and definitely not going to draw a link from me.) There was plenty of bullshit to go around that day, at all levels of media. Lots of people quoted President Obama’s admonition (watch the video) to wait for the facts, but almost no one followed it. And almost no one will heed Army Gen. George William Casey Jr.’s advice on Sunday, to not jump to conclusions “based on little snippets of information that come out.”

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the categories of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.” That is, even though I gobble up “the latest” from a variety of sources, the closer the information is in time to the actual event, the more I assume it’s unreliable if not false.

SnailIt’s my own version of “slow news” — an expression I first heard on Friday, coined by my friend Ethan Zuckerman in a wonderful riff off the slow-food movement. We were at a Berkman Center for Internet & Society retreat in suburban Boston, in a group discussion of ways to improve the quality of what we know when we have so many sources from which to choose at every minute of the day.

One of society’s recently adopted cliches is the “24-hour news cycle” — the recognition that the once-a-day, manufacturing-based version of journalism has essentially passed into history for those who consume and create news via digital systems. Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff.

(UPDATE: Yes, I am aware that some print publications can, though few do, provide actual perspective. As several commenters have noted, meanwhile, the notion of slowing things down to achieve more perspective has been in the wild for a while now, though aimed more at the journalists; note Paul Bradshaw’s “slow journalism” observation; Kirk Ross’ ideas and this from Matt Thompson. What I’m suggesting, as noted, is much more about audiences. See update at end.)

That 24-hour news cycle needs further adjustment. The first is that an hourly news cycle is itself too long. The latest can come at any minute in an era of TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences. Call it the 1,440 minute news cycle.

Rapid-fire news is about speed, which has two main purposes for the provider. The first is human competitiveness, the desire to be first. In journalism newsrooms, scoops are a coin of the realm.

The second imperative is audience. Being first draws a crowd. Crowds can be turned into influence, money or both. Witness cable news channels’ desperate hunt for “the latest” when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage.

This applies not just to raw information (often wrong, remember) that’s the basis for breaking news. It’s also the case, for example, for the blogger who offers up the first sensible-sounding commentary that puts the “news” into perspective. The winners in the online commentary derby — which is just as competitive, though for lower financial stakes, as — are the quick and deft writers who tell us what it means. That they’re often basing these perspectives on lies or well-meaning falsehoods seems to matter less than being early to comment.

I’m not arguing here against human nature. We all want to know what’s going on, and the bigger the calamity the more we want to know. Nothing is going to change that, and nothing should.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. Speculation has passed for journalism in all media eras. Every commercial plane crash, for example, is followed by days (now more like minutes and hours) of brazen guessing by so-called experts who, to be sure, are occasionally proved correct after months of actual investigation by the real experts. Sometimes we never know the truth.

But the advent of 1,440 minute news cycle (should we call it the 86,400 second news cycle?), which brings with it an insatiable appetite for something new to talk about, should literally give us pause. Again and again, we’ve seen that initial assumptions can be grossly untrustworthy.

We all know that the Texas shooter wasn’t killed during his rampage, as was first reported. That’s because the story was still fresh enough, and the saturation coverage was ongoing, when it emerged that he hadn’t been shot dead by law enforcement.

But we all “know” things that were subsequently found to be untrue, in part because journalists typically don’t report outcomes with the same passion and play that they report the initial news. We’ve all seen videos of people who’ve been arrested but who were later acquitted; yet the inherent bias in crime reporting has left reputations of innocent people shattered. And how many of us hear a report that such-and-such product or behavior has been found to raise cancer risk, but never hear the follow up that the report is either false or misleading?

The rapid-fire news system’s abundance of falsehoods has other causes than simple speed, including the decline of what’s supposed to be a staple of journalism: fact checking before running with a story.

Citing the grotesque “balloon boy” stunt, Clay Shirky (also a friend) observed recently — in a Tweet, no less — that “fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way WAY up.”

I’m not entirely sure the balloon-boy situation is the best example of this phenomenon, because there weren’t all that many facts journalists could check during the time the balloon was in the air. The family’s publicly weird ways should have prompted much more skepticism, earlier than it did, but journalists went with the story in front of them.

Clay’s point is absolutely right in a general sense, however. It lends weight to slow news, to the idea that we all might be wise to think before we react, just as most of us failed to do during the early hours and days of the “#amazonfail” situation last April. As he wrote then, a lot of us were wrong and believed things that turned out not to be true — and we reacted with fury to something that was a mistake, not evil design. (I am one of those people.)

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This applies, more than ever, to news, where we need to be skeptical of just about everything we read, listen to and watch, though not equally skeptical.

A corollary to that is increasingly clear: to wait a bit, for evidence that is persuasive, before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation.

Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

UPDATE (and welcome to the BoingBoing crew): I shouldn’t have to say this, but several tweets have suggested that the answer is, uh, print and quality broadcasting. Newspapers and magazines and network news.

Of course this is true, in part. I cherish the New Yorker magazine (among others), and the dwindling number of daily newspapers and broadcasters that try to do this part of their jobs properly. To the extent that audiences decide this matters to them, maybe they’ll pick up some old habits.

But this isn’t about saving the old guard, and it really isn’t even about fixing (some of) what’s wrong with journalism. It’s mostly about persuading audiences to, among other things, “take a deep breath” before leaping to conclusions, as PaidContent’s Staci Kramer tweeted. (I don’t trust journalists to do this anymore, with too few exceptions.)

In a practical sense, we can help it along if we find ways to preserve a happy by-product of the manufacturing process. Or, as Clay puts it in an email, “the idea — that we have to get back, by design, the kinds of things we used to get as side-effects of the environment — is so important right now, and especially for news.”

Ethan Zuckerman also replied on his blog in a post called “Why we fall for fast news” — as always, great insight. Excerpt:

Why do we persistently refresh news, looking for updates? (See my comments on AP’s ethnography of news consumption, which suggests that this is a common pattern.) It makes sense for certain types of news – if you’re directly impacted by an event, tracking a storm enroute to your town, for instance. But that’s not why we refresh most news – it’s rare that having the most timely (and, as Dan suggests, the least careful) information has a direct impact on our well-being.

Here are a couple of possibilities:

– The media made us do it. We don’t want to eat fast food, but that’s all we’re fed, due to the newsroom factors Dan suggests.

– We’re bored. AP’s “deep dive” suggests that relentless refreshing is something we do mostly when we’ve got nothing better to do.

– We’re building social capital. If we’ve got the most up-to-date information on the breaking news, we can use it to open conversations with friends and position ourselves as in the know, raising our stature.

– We’re narrative junkies. A breaking news story is like a novel that ends after a few chapters – we keep reloading in the hopes that someone will tell us the rest of the story.

I suspect there’s some truth to each of those explanations… and I suspect that each is badly incomplete. I also suspect that figuring out what drives our patterns of news consumption, and our susceptibility to fast, often-wrong news is critical for Dan’s slow-news movement to gain momentum.

23 thoughts on “Toward a Slow-News Movement”

  1. As a web news publisher and 35-year print, web and radio journalist, I’d say the answer here is simple: Even in the heat of a breaking news story, we must hold to our standards. Is what I’m writing/saying supported by my reporting? Do I have it from a reliable source (preferrably more than one, or at least an official statement)?

    To be sure, some of the official information out of Texas proved wrong initially. That’s just a reminder that we also need to make sure readers/listeners know the potential limitations of what we’re reporting. In the electronic media – web, radio, TV – stories do not run through much an editing screen. Let’s do what we can to remind our audiences of that.

    And let’s hold one another to it – even if that means either not engaging in copycat reporting or holding others’ reports up to the light, as in, “So-and-so is reporting X (or the spokesman for such and such is saying … ). We haven’t been able to verify that.”

    Yes, it may not help clarify a confusing situation. But it will make it clear when stories are developing.

    By the way, I’m all for slow news. But it means restraint, a little less playing the “first” game on questionable information, and a little more time assembling a complete report.

    1. Hogwash. Slow news is just as distorted. The media, given time, distorted Ft. Hood beyond recognition. Traditional media and traditional journalism is still built on the mob. The mob is simply a smaller group.

  2. When I launched Help Me Investigate I described it as “slow journalism” in the same vein in The Guardian – people do a little every week towards an investigative goal; quality rather than quantity. In practice it seems there is sometimes value in a critical mass of momentum – although not always.

  3. It won’t happen.

    Social networking technology and web2.0 is built on the backbone of the mob, and the Internet culture is predicated on “people power” and a sham-form of democracy wherein everyone’s opinion is seen as equally sound. If an individual’s lone opinion isn’t seen as sound by the mob’s groupthink, it’ll be shouted out of oblivion, or voted down to nonexistence (see sites like reddit, which glorify the democratic nature of the crowd).

    What you are asking is for the ravenous, snarky mongol cyberhordes from the eternal september to stop their bloodthirst for 140 characters of 4chan memes, outrageous headlines, and pictures of lolcats.

    1. So, how do you explain how good the Wikipedia article about the Fort Hood shooting is? That article had the basic facts by the end of the day, as you can see by checking it’s history. It also has excellent history on the shooter and is collecting more facts as they become available. Transparency, fact checking and an abundance of interest beat traditional reporting hands down.

  4. Oh, and on the subject: One of the costs of an information ecosystem in which there is no ubiquitous gatekeeper is that information consumers have to become more sophisticated. I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that. You get all this stuff you couldn’t get before, and it comes in faster, but you have to adapt to this environment.

    I actually think this is an improvement over the old “system,” btw.

  5. What will change, what must change, and ultimately what will be very good for all of us is that “real time journalism” will force readers to engage in critical analysis of information and the sources they get that information from. Take “balloon boy” as an example: my response was that it’s highly unlikely that that volume of Helium could provide enough lift for an average five year old boy, therefore the story is probably bogus. The fact that very few “mainstream” journalists failed to apply a basic plausibility test before running off in breaking news mode was surprising, and very damaging to a “profession” I already hold in low regard.

    The days when journalists can quote sources without adequate citation are over. Anyone who follows politics knows that even typically “reliable” sources can provide unreliable information when they are misinformed. So reporting on the Fort Hoot shooting could have read “we heard that ‘there were three shooters’ from a passer-by, who heard it from a friend who said he was at the scene”. Given adequate disclosure of the source, readers are capable of weighing these “factoids” appropriately and subsequently of coming to reasonable conclusions. In the breaking news sphere, the public does not need a paternalistic “profession” to do this critical thinking for it, it simply needs adequate information and accurate citation. Fast news will quickly evolve to provide this, and the requirement for readers to think critically is a good thing, both for news and for society in general.

    All that said, there is a place for “slow journalism”. Returning to the Foot Hood incident for an example, I am certain there is demand for a detailed elaboration of the events, starting with the suspect’s acquisition of the guns. This sort of work is clearly valid and useful, but it’s also quite different from real-time news, just as analysis is distinct from both fast and slow news.

  6. Heck, we’ve been doing this at VQR for 84 years. We release an issue every three months, but our mission calls for us to be topical. So we can’t be trendy—by the time we assign a story, send a reporter, research the story, write it, edit it, slate it in an issue, and print it, a minimum of six months have gone by…and then it has a three-month shelf life. So we have to cover the long now (with all due credit to Stewart Brand for that phrase), the news of a “now” that encompasses at least nine months.

    We published “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce” a year ago, figuring that it’d be topical before long. And, lo, explaining why a veteran with PTSD might kill himself is suddenly topical. The karma of slow news coverage has a way of sorting that out. Want to know what’ll be news in the next year or so? Check our last year’s coverage: the crippling drought in the Yucatán, fisherman turned iceberg hunters in Newfoundland, and near-universal epidemic of depression in Cuba all spring to mind.

    For more slow news, there’s The New Yorker (as you mentioned), but Utne, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Orion also spring to mind readily. There’s something about not publishing constantly that— You know, I was going to write “has a way of focusing the mind,” but the opposite is true. It has a way of broadening the mind, focusing much less. We’ve got too much focus in our news. It’s time for less of that.

  7. “It’s mostly about persuading audiences to …”

    AKA, preaching and sermonizing – in a way which will not seriously engage the problem, and certainly never, ever, propose anything that would contradict the business plans favored by the conference-clubbers.

    I’ve made this point before, to no good effect. While the preach/sermon article is not wrong _per se_, it’s rather trivial. “We should do this. We *should*. We SHOULD …”.

    Yes, we should. Now what?

    If the answer is more preaching and sermonizing, because that’s the only intellectual stance which is acceptable in A-list circles, doesn’t that show it’s futile?

    To spell it out – Dan, you know what would happen if someone said “This Web-2.0 popularity-mining model is a failure for journalism. It favors the most opinionated, demagogic loudmouths – being right doesn’t win, it’s even an outright handicap to stroking the audience. Therefore, we should have some public funding of journalism, to try that in a mix of approaches”.

    Do I have to go further in outlining the inevitable reaction? The attacks that would generate?

    1. Seth, we don’t have to speculate what would happen if someone said this (as if it hasn’t been said many times already). The first part would be half-true, that Web 2.0 is not working well for journalism of the kind you and I prefer, which also assumes that something this early in its existence can be called a failure. Seems too soon for me.

      The “therefore” you suggest, which does not in any real way follow from what comes before, is worth debating. Govt has been supporting media for a long, long time in lots of ways, some worthy (postal system) and some rancid (giveaway of spectrum to cynical, greedy corporations) and some in between. Direct funding is not on my list of good ideas.

      1. “Seems too soon for me.”

        This is longstanding FAQ – “When will it stop being too soon?” When will it be acceptable to say – though nothing is ever completely determinative in the world, etc, etc. – that reasonable evidence is in, and it’s a failure. If the answer is “NEVER! It’ll always be early days, we’re just at the beginning, etc etc” – that’s an intellectual abdication.
        (I cynically suspect the answer is that we can call something a failure only when it’s clear that A-listers can’t make any money off it)

        The “therefore” comes out of the background that, to be very simplistic since this is a comment not a book, there are only a very few existing workable models for large scale news. The blogged-down ad-supported model gives every indication of being worse than what preceded it. This failure is thus an argument for revisiting opposing models, such as public-sector support.

        1. What you call a failure I call a work in progress. In some fields we’ve never had as much solid journalism as we do right now, tech for example. (Cue tirade on how little this matters, etc.) Meanwhile all kinds of experiments are under way.

          The decline of the record labels hasn’t caused music to get worse, though music they produce is worse. More people are doing more interesting music now than ever.

          Your A-list obsession is getting really tiresome, by the way. You might consider giving it a bit of a rest.

  8. The Web has several characteristics. The Web is:
    – Immediate
    – Participatory (social media)
    – Contextual (in a matrix of info that is relative and chronological)
    – Continuous (follows a story to its logical conclusion…but it never really dies)
    – Solution-oriented (instead of problem-oriented)
    – Media choice appropriate to the info or story
    – Personal (i.e., ability of a person to find info relevant to her/him, e.g. in databases)

    Generally speaking, news organizations grok the first — that’s mostly what they do — and are beginning to embrace (barely) the second. They don’t understand how to incorporate the remainder into a structure that weights toward contextual (or slow) news, while accommodating, with caution, the emerging information.

    It can be done, however, in carefully crafted niche news networks. What I used to call Web shells.

    In this scenario, the very nature of news changes. Breaking news is crisis- and problem-oriented. The Web, by its nature, is solution-oriented. It’s going to take a while, but I think we’ll see a very different approach take over in a few years. Our communities are demanding it.

    We at the Lawrence Journal-World will be taking our first baby steps in this direction in early 2010, when we debut a new health site.

  9. I’d like to say that slow news is possible. Despite being a member of the three monitor club and a pretty heavy information consumer, I often don’t hear about “breaking stories,” such as the Ft. Hood shooting, until a full day after the event. I’ve spent a while refining my filters, and I’m happy to say I can generally consume information published same day while avoiding most media hysteria. I didn’t hear about balloon boy, for example, until at least 24 hours after the event when a couple of people published good commentaries on the media (like this one).

    So, it’s possible, but, I’ll admit, hard. I would happily pay for a publication whose stated purpose was “slow news.”

  10. “Persuading audiences to … take a deep breath …”

    You’re kidding, right?
    Like, most people are going to be half as smart or considerate as you are?
    Like, they’ll make the effort?
    And you can TEACH them how,
    because they want to learn to do it if they don’t do it already?

    I ~ and human history ~ shake my head sadly.

  11. You write, “It’s my own version of “slow news” — an expression I first heard on Friday, coined by my friend Ethan Zuckerman in a wonderful riff off the slow-food movement. We were at a Berkman Center for Internet & Society retreat in suburban Boston, in a group discussion of ways to improve the quality of what we know when we have so many sources from which to choose at every minute of the day.”

    May I immodestly suggest I used it well prior to the Friday you heard it. “Slow News” is featured in the closing lines of my book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies (published by Lyons Press in May, 2009). “How nice to be in hot pursuit of a gorgeous creature,” I wrote about the year I spent studying the butterfly underworld as a breather from my usual beats of disasters, “instead of responding to bad news, especially an animal that brings such happiness to so many of us — and does no harm. It’s made me think of the slow food movement as a model. Perhaps it’s time to launch the slow news movement (yesterday’s news tomorrow).”

    My context was different from Zuckerman’s, but it sounds as if our motivations and goals are in sync.

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