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.