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Why we fall for fast news

Friend and colleague Dan Gillmor came up with a powerful idea at a Berkman retreat this past week – the need for a “slow news movement” in journalism, a focus on reporting that’s about careful, reasoned analysis, not about speed. (Dan credits the term to me – that’s too kind. I’m merely the wiseass who took the complex idea he was putting forward and reduced it to a soundbite.)

Dan offers two reasons why news outlets publish news as quickly as possible, forcing themselves to correct and retract when following a story like the tragic Ft. Hood shootings. A newsroom veteran, Dan credits journalists’ natural competitive instincts for some of the need for speed. And he points out that speed is a way of maintaining an 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.”

Much as I love to blame the media for the world’s ills, I’m increasingly convinced that the specific dysfunction of American media as it transitions to an internet age is the feedback loop between journalists and their audience. In other words, journalists want to produce fast news, in part because fast news is what we consume. I’m as bad as anyone else – I kept hitting reload to see whether Falcoln Heene was in the balloon, along with millions of others.

Why? 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.

17 thoughts on “Why we fall for fast news”

  1. it is a spiritual problem, in the way yogis, sufis, or buddhist meditators understand the mind ..

    there is no cure, apart from finding the self who perceives ..

    in other words, it is not structural or relational, it is deeper

  2. News has long combined rumour, opinion, advertising, basic human storytelling complete with focus on cardinal sins & catharsis, and the ident and publishing of important novel news. I don’t know if reporters all learn to distinguish among these; the essential last category is often published/framed as though it were one of the other.

    We need to match the desire to learn more interesting tidbits and feed this boredom or addiction or capacity for new topics to pass on, with current & historical context and a widening circle of detail and related coverage of a thousand related topics.

    Modern news : comprehensive coverage and lysis of the world’s progress :: The Bathroom Book : Wikipedia

  3. I believe it may actually be one of our most basic instincts. There is much research that supports the idea that movement and change is something that attracts our awareness (and the film / motion picture industry, including television) has used this to mesmerize it’s audience into a sort of “awareness addiction”.

    Peace and quite are not exactly what sells. Rustling leaves draw attention. Attention can be used to sell products + services (in the old-fashioned advertising model).

    However, the web-savvy generation (of which I consider myself to be a part of, even though I’m not a teenager) is not impressed with the sound (or rather: noise) of rustling leaves. I don’t follow 100 people — let alone 1000. That is simply nonsense. Old media people seem to think that being bombarded with noise is a luxury.

    Yea, try this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN75im_us4k

    ;) nmw

  4. Hasn’t the developed world in general led to a ‘sound bite society’? Improvements in communication technology, round the clock reporting and social networking all mean that the media not only have to respond faster (to events as well as comments from audiences) but also try to be ahead of their competitors.
    As you’ve pointed out, that is logical, even essential in certain contexts but for development reporting as we do on the Guardian Katine Project site (www.guardian.co.uk/katine), we have found the demands of our industry and our readers challenging: how do you make international development fresh everyday? How do you generate enough copy about a community and tell the “slow burn” story without losing your audience or getting bored out of your own mind?! How do the pressures we put on our NGO partners actually affect the work they do in the field?
    Here in London, these are the questions we’ve been asking about the way we report international development. http://bit.ly/jso3e
    But the fundemental question about starting this “slow news movement” remains: does the media wait for a change in society re: how we consume news or are we a catalyst for that change, offering analysis as it emerges and not in response to other pressures?



    Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop, published in 1937, was once the guilty pleasure of foreign correspondents. (Perhaps it still is, if foreign correspondents still exist.) The two excerpts above are cables–telegrams–from the fictional London newspaper the Daily Beast to the accidental journalist William Boot, mistakenly sent to the east African country of Ishmaelia to cover a war that isn’t actually happening.

    The Beast’s demands for “information romance vitality” and “victories until further notice” ought to sound familiar to 21st-century ears–just switch on CNN or Fox News. The small and probably obvious point I’m making is that the “desperate hunt for ‘the latest’ when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage” is a quite old phenomenon, even if new technologies make this possible at a speed and on a scale unthinkable to Waugh’s Lord Copper.

    In 1937, audiences couldn’t hit reload to get the latest version of whatever story the Coppers had decided was paramount, but major newspapers printed updated editions throughout the day, prominently advertised on the streets–the pre-digital version of the breaking news flash, and about as reliable.

    Finally, as other commentors have pointed out, “slow news” has existed for a long, long time, in the form of what we call (or used to call) books!

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  7. Tina Brown, the former magazine and current blog editor (of the current, real-life inwebification of Waugh’s “Daily Beast”), commented on National Public Radio this morning about the difficulty of doing narrative journalism — another name for slow news — on the web. She suggests it is a challenge we’re groping with, and can be expected to overcome. In a throw-away at the end of the segment, breaking the narrative into bite (or cell-phone-screen) -size pieces was thrown out as an example of the possibilities.

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  10. There is no news. What we call news can be broken down into statistics, entertainment, and developments. There is no business model to follow developments as good as one to follow statistics and entertainment. There has never been a widely followed and successful system to do such a thing. It take special people on both sides to figure it out and make the effort to filter through the noise.

  11. This is a fascinating topic, and it’s striking that there are only 10 replies so far.

    I believe that “fast news” predates even television, being a leftover from the days when newspapers competed for a “scoop”, where being the first on the street with the story meant lots of sales. Of course, TV perverted this, by not being real-time, but planting teasers like “Nuclear attack due any minute. Details at 11” Of course, in the internet age, teasers are hard proof of idiocy, since you can just look up the tease on the internet if you haven’t already done so.

    This will all change: news, advertising, TV, education and jobs. Thank goodness for slow-thinking business people stuck in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They’re making my job easier.

    Stay Tuned.


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