Monday, June 24, 2013

News Memory: Let's Keep Journalism Relevant and Accountable

"Where do I buy a newspaper?"  Seriously, I had this debate with myself a few months ago when I was interviewed for an article, and found the article the next morning on the Web.  My Dad recommended I go and buy the corresponding newspaper so that I could keep it, and I considered his suggestion on a couple different levels.  First of all, what would I do with such a newspaper?  It wasn't so significant that I would hang it up in a frame and display it forever, so it would most likely go in a box of mementos from my college days.  Second, was the link enough?  I had shared the article on my facebook and LinkedIn pages that morning, and many of my friends had seen it, read it, and commented it.  I had a hard time deciding what I would even do with a newspaper if I bought it.  Third, where do I even buy a newspaper?  I guessed it would be at a gas station, or maybe a grocery store, but I honestly don't think I've ever bought a newspaper on my own, and couldn't remember the last time I had been with someone else to buy one.  It's just paper, and at the end of the day, it gets recycled because it's obsolete. 

There's no doubt that journalism is changing, and journalists must adapt or be left behind.  News reporting isn't the only industry that has lost jobs to technology, by the way.  Is it possible that technology has allowed a fewer number of journalists to collect and report on the same number of stories?  But we can't look solely at lost jobs to determine what is good and evil.  We must look at the net result, and that is better and more information, which I would argue is invariably a good thing.  While some criticize Wikipedia because "anyone can change it," I have heard it is more accurate than any printed encyclopedia collection, with tons more information, and I believe it.  Have you ever actually tried to change Wikipedia?  It isn't so easy, because they want you to cite sources, and people are reviewing it. 

Nor can we base our judgments solely on the average quality of the product.  I would agree that with more and better information, there is also more junk out there than ever before.  My favorite quote from "The Long Tail" is when Chris Anderson says, “it is when the tools of production are transparent, that we are inspired to create.”  With the ability to publish with greater ease, people do so.  But readers are also becoming more discerning.  As the Internet has become more commonplace, people have developed an ability to filter out, or at least double check, potential garbage.  I believe this is a skill that was lacking in most newspaper readers of 30 years ago.  It was possible to blindly lead people astray because of one news story (reference the radio broadcast "War of the Worlds" in which listeners thought they were tuning in to a real story about aliens).  Now even reputable news sources are questioned, and rightfully so.  Journalists are held to a higher standard, because the audience can now correct, criticize or congratulate them. 

Even more so, I think bloggers and websites have tapped into a need that traditional journalists could not: almost everyone wants to feel like they have a voice, so asking your readers what they think gives them a platform to contribute in ways they couldn't before, while allowing you to moderate as needed.  This makes them feel involved, and keeps them coming back to check other peoples' replies, and see what else they can comment on.  Newspapers are a one-way communication and cannot fulfill this need for interaction. 

So I think it's clear that traditional journalists have to adapt, and that they are now held to higher standards because their readers can correct them.  Those two points being stated, I'd like to mention one of the biggest downfalls, as I see it, of journalists today.  I haven't found a term to describe this phenomenon, so I'll call it news memory.  Muscle memory is used by dancers, martial artists, and the like, to train the body to move in certain, repeatable, predictable ways.  This is generally considered a good thing, but sometimes you have to learn to trick your muscle memory to allow you to move in a different way.  News memory, I think, is always a negative thing.  It is when one big story is followed by dozens of non-stories of a similar theme.  The earthquake in Japan, for example, had devastating ramifications, including the tsunami and the nuclear emergency.  But then every subsequent earthquake in Japan was reported, even though Japan sees hundreds of earthquakes every year.  The same thing happened after Hurricane Katrina, every hurricane was suddenly "breaking news" when it was really just normal weather patterns.  I think every major natural disaster has been followed by copy cat stories that beg the question, "So what?"  It's as if journalists develop news memory by watching for repeats, rather than looking for new, truly newsworthy stories. 

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