Friday, April 19, 2013

I Remember a Thing Called Journalism

Spokespeople announced Wednesday that they had possible security footage of suspects dropping what might have been the Boston Marathon bomb. Some outlets reported the sparse facts, but exuberant CNN reporters rushed to announce that police had arrested... somebody. (As of this writing, no arrests have been made.) To their credit, they quickly walked that report back. But not quickly enough to stem inevitable, and richly deserved, criticism.

Then it got weird. After initial reports of CNN’s hasty stew, other news outlets reported on those secondary reports. embarassed itself by reporting on the reports of CNN’s wrong report, following a two-paragraph article with no less than seventeen screen-grabs of other people’s Twitter cynicism. This circularity became very “meta,” less like reportage than like somebody’s plagiarized semiotics dissertation.

Police representatives have praised advances in digital technology for opening new investigative opportunities in this crisis. From CCTV security cameras to news footage to camcorders on smartphones, they must surely have thousands of hours of footage on a single explosion. No herky-jerky Zapruder film for these investigators. But the digital technology clarifying the event for police only serves to cloud it for everybody else.

Uncountable websites, blogs, streaming news feeds, cable channels, Twitter, Reddit, and other sources barrage us daily with news on this and other tragedies, creating content far faster than they uncover information. The same news gets repackaged, tranched, examined through partisan lenses, and resold as though such handling makes it fresh. While Boston, and the nation, strive to savvy this new tragedy, “news” outlets relentlessly pick at the scabs.

In our digital age, the 24-hour news cycle has permitted audiences to wallow in a constant welter of information. But it has also created the demand for content to fill that time, regardless of whether new information has entered the cycle. Watching Fox News and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews compete yesterday to outshine each other in naked xenophobic nationalism, audiences couldn’t help realize how intellectually and morally vacant our media has become.

Meanwhile, American newspapers continue their slow collapse. Outlets like Forbes and Newsweek, once the gold standard of solid reportage, have become tawdry blog platforms, and if the print editions still exist, they are mere shells of their former glory. Journalism critics call on surviving newspapers to salvage themselves by becoming “hyperlocal,” in essence surrendering national coverage to the websites and cable channels now covering Boston so poorly.

I say: No! No, American newspapers, do not butcher the mainstays of journalism that once made America the bastion of informed democracy! We as a nation do not long for cheaper, shorter, less detailed coverage of events. We do not complain that our news coverage is insufficiently patronizing, or fear that reporters show us too much respect. We do not want TV editorialists and the interwebs setting the tone in this country. We do not!

The tedious all-day Boston coverage, in which incremental advances get mistaken for the recovery of the Rosetta Stone, demonstrate why we still need old-fashioned journalism. As Neil Postman reported nearly thirty years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television does its best work disseminating lowbrow content. It does an overwhelmingly poor job spreading high art or in-depth reportage. The Web goes even further.

We have known since at least the 1960s that TV news doesn’t covering news well. Transcripts of the evening network news wouldn’t fill half a page in most urban newspapers. Though websites have more content, they don’t encourage deep reading. According to Wired magazine and the New England Journal of Medicine, research indicates people reading online seldom finish an article (even this one), and retain little once they click away.

In fairness, newspapers, with their hours-long lead times and fixed formats, cannot compete with TV or the Internet on breaking spot news. Sudden sweeping developments can happen at any hour, and newspapers can only rush out so many editions per day. But we must not mistake breaking news, important as it is, for actual journalism. That would be like mistaking a first draft, jotted on loose-leaf paper, for the the hit song it eventually becomes.

We once depended on journalists to unpack complex relationships, eavesdrop on backroom log-rolling sessions, and generally tease truth out of raw data. Now, “reporters” barrage us with vast quantities of undifferentiated information, letting us draw conclusions for which we’re largely unqualified. If you feel more confused than enlightened by the coverage in Boston, you’re not alone. We know more about current events than ever, while we understand far, far less.

On a related topic:
Breaking News—Media Wastes Nation's Time With Worthless Fake Story

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