In 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.
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.
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.
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.