Have you heard..? Did you see..? Being bang up-to-date with the latest news or gossip is a big part of social capital. It’s what makes us interesting to others and it’s one of the reasons we give up our most precious resource to get it – our time.
Constantly revising knowledge of what’s going on around us is a deeply-rooted instinct borne of fight-or-flight perils. Anticipating threats and opportunities might just give us an edge to avoid mortal danger – or alternatively help us make a killing (metaphorically speaking).
The value of any information exchange comes from the usefulness of what’s being imparted set against the time and energy expended to find out.
For news providers this creates a quandary. They want to be consistently first with the news and they also want to deliver high value information; doing both, while not incompatible, is often difficult.
For readers and viewers, the sheer volume of material that has to be ploughed through to make the exercise worthwhile can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when the signal is suppressed by noise.
It’s why coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, MH370, was described by media commentator Michael Wolff as “the new anti-journalism – all data, no real facts, endless theories”.
The Public Editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, condemned her own organization for its use of anonymous sources and comments in its reporting:
“In a news story about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, there’s this anonymous quotation, commenting on a suggestion (also anonymously sourced) that someone may have piloted the aircraft to as high as 45,000 feet, above the 43,100-foot ceiling for the Boeing 777. The passage reads:
“A current Boeing 777-200 pilot for an Asian-based airline said the move could have been intended to depressurize the cabin and render the passengers and crew unconscious, preventing them from alerting people on the ground with their cellphones. “Incapacitate them so as to carry on your plan uninterrupted,” the pilot said.
“As a reader, Danny Burstein, wrote to me: “There’s absolutely no reason to quote an anonymous source who’s making a ridiculous claim of this sort, and triply so since your reporter could have called any of a hundred other pilots who’d have gone on the record saying this was garbage.”
The lack of sourcing is in clear contravention of the Times’ reporting guidelines. It’s also a symptom of the competitive pressure news providers are under; quality is compromised for the sake of speed.
Those prepared to put in the extra time to check facts, verify details, and find robust sources, come a poor second when the rumor mill is in full spate. There is no “slow news” movement.
We, the audience, are fickle. We know the trade-off, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. A news organization that’s consistently behind the curve when a major story is unfolding suffers reputational damage. Caution gets trampled underfoot in the audience rush to those who will fill the vacuum.
In my previous post …and now the news for you, and you, and you I talked about a much more personal form of news; narrowcast not broadcast, tailored more to the individual, less to a mass audience.
News organizations are firing blind with their salvoes of information and they’ll continue to do so until they offer readers and viewers the chance to fine tune their news supply.
Push notifications, alerts and updates were once a way of staying across major news developments. Now they’re an irritation.
Andy Hickl, cofounder and CEO of the lifelogging app, Saga, recently stated that he was turning off his alerts and opting out of what he called notification overload – at least until his apps got to know him better.
He’s not alone. From my time at the BBC, I quickly learned that some users wanted fewer breaking news alerts, too many were being sent and they were intrusive and annoying. For others there were too few: why hadn’t an alert been sent on such and such? (We all gauge the importance of news through our own prism of interests. My world’s big news may not correspond to your scale of what’s important).
There were complaints, too, from viewers who wanted only fact-checked, double-sourced, fully verified alerts, while others preferred the absolute latest information and were happy to make reach their own conclusions about its worth.
The gripes haven’t gone away. There’s still no rheostat for breaking news that lets me decide how much is too much; that lets me choose to swim through the farrago of twisted facts, half-truths, rumors and theories to distil my own version of plausibility and value, or to signpost that I’ll have none of it until the dust has settled and a clear picture has emerged.
Fine-tuning to that degree is easy to talk about, much more difficult to deliver. It also begs one very big question: Would you use it if it was offered?
Optimization choices in the recent past have been a minority pursuit because of the time required of individuals to set them up. We now spend so much time batting away the irrelevant and the inconsequential that the tide may have turned.
So, is sophisticated filtering time well spent, or is it more trouble than it’s worth? Once we have the answer to that question we can either move towards a smarter, more precisely targeted supply of stories – or we can continue to scrabble for news nuggets in a growing mountain of information.