What is “the news”? Good question

by Mathew on April 17, 2008 · 13 comments

There have been a number of threads floating around the blogosphere recently that have to do with traditional media vs. “new media,” and the differences between the two — something that this article in the New York Observer got me thinking about again. There was the TechCrunch post about ads in Twitter, which was somewhat lacking in facts; there was the idea that journalism online has become much more of a process or continuum rather than an end in itself; and then there was the whole concept of “if the news is that important, it will find me,” which I wrote about.

I wanted to try and pull a few of those together because, well… that’s how I roll. Plus, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit, and writing about it helps me think. So bear with me (or not). If you look at some of the comments on my post about the Twitter ads story, as well as on other posts about it, you can see people talking about how it “wasn’t a story,” and suggesting — as Nate Westheimer did — that traditional media, with editors and so on, would never run something like that. I’d like Nate to read the New York Observer piece and see if he still feels the same way.

Would a newspaper or TV station or magazine have run with a Twitter story like TechCrunch did? Maybe not. But the fact is that plenty of poorly-sourced or single-sourced or anonymous-sourced stories show up in newspapers all the time — and not just the Enquirer or People magazine, but in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. And it’s not only stories about nuclear weapons in Iraq either — it’s stories that are about celebrities, or wealthy Wall Street types, or politicians. Sometimes, a story is just too good to pass up, even if it’s shaky.

That’s why it’s actually a good thing that news is becoming more of a process (which it always has been). Instead of trying to pump rumours and innuendo into full-fledged stories that deserve a premier spot in the paper, journalists can toss things into the ether when they think there is more to a story, and then update the story as it develops, something Mike Arrington said at mesh 2007 that he sometimes does. This is frequently messy, which is why I like to adapt the old saying about “if you love the law or sausages, don’t watch either one being made” to apply to the media. It’s not pretty, but it is occasionally true.

And that brings me back to the idea of “news.” What do we mean when we use that word, or when we say something like “if the news is that important, it will find me?” Some people responded to my post on that concept by saying they weren’t confident that “real” news would find them, by which I think they meant news of the U.S. election, or war in Sudan. But that’s only one small part of the definition of “news” — something that every person is probably going to define differently, and may even define differently depending on what day it is.

Is the Web to blame for creating “news” out of nowhere, as the New York Observer article suggests? I don’t think so. Newspapers have been doing that for about a hundred years. The Web is probably accelerating and amplifying that phenomenon — but at the same time, a proliferation of sources is also helping to nip such stories in the bud a lot sooner.

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  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    The consensus seems to be that the proliferation of sources in the end produces balance and accuracy, but I think you also have to look at motivation. At its crudest level it's just about chasing page views, and while you could argue that over time churning out rumour and innuendo will lead to a decline in readership, in the near term it works. Over the longer term the complete absence of barriers to entry to publishing most likely means it will keep being about cranking out sensationalized quantity.

    For me it's not really about the web being “to blame” (the web doesn't trivialize, people do…), but I just don't buy the idea that the final destination is some democratic idyll of accurate, decentralized news.

  • http://www.accmanpro.com Dennis Howlett

    I can't agree with this. At the rate that 'news' is being manufactured from little more than unsubstantiated rumor, it won't be long before people start doing that – quite literally. PR's are not stupid and they'll see this 'trend' as something to milk. At that point, everyone loses because then no-one knows what to believe. TC has a lot to answer for IMO. The good 'news' (no pun intended) is that outside the bubble, no-one cares.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I'm not sure that the proliferation of sources produces perfect
    balance and accuracy, but I think it helps. Let's face it –
    newspapers and other media have always chased the equivalent of page
    views (or advertisers, which amounts to the same thing). How is the
    Web any different? I don't think it is — it's just faster.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Can't agree with what, Dennis? My point is that the manufacturing of
    “news” has always gone on, for a variety of reasons, and likely will
    continue — the Web may be amplifying that effect, or extending it,
    but other than that it's not much different from what happens in
    “traditional” media. Either you believe that people will gravitate
    towards more accurate or trustworthy sources, or you don't. There are
    plenty of examples of both to choose from.

  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    I think it's completely different. Sure you could point to the British tabloids, etc., or the general goal of selling more papers, but traditional media outlets created much more distance between the journalists writing the story and the pageviews or their equivalent. And the journalists' reputation and credibility was much more to do with intelligent reporting and discovering real stories that weren't necessarily “popular” stories.

    Plus I think it diminishes the significance of “faster” to say “it's just faster” — the ability to publish and distribute instantly completely changes the game.

    PS: Not sure what it is with disqus, but I have my profile set up to display my real name and it's always my screen name that shows up.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I'm not sure it's completely different — it's true that traditional
    media outlets do insulate the journalist from the “page view” or its
    equivalent, but the connection between stories that get attention and
    the success of a particular writer or reporter is still there — it
    may not be as visible to the outside world, but it still operates.

    In some cases, having more distance between those two things could be
    a negative rather than a positive — and making that relationship more
    transparent could be seen as a good thing. I'm not saying it is, I'm
    just saying it could be. And I'm not downplaying the fact that being
    faster changes things — it definitely does. But it's a difference of
    degree, not a difference in kind.

    Not sure about the Disqus thing, I'm afraid.

  • dschatsky

    So, maybe journalistic objectivity is an illusion. And maybe traditional journalism gets (or got) more credit for accuracy than it was due. Then maybe Internet-age news-as-a-process is a technology-enabled adaptation to that reality. And maybe produces more reliable news stories over time through successive refinement and the embrace of the dynamic of socially constructed truth.

    But there are limits on how much time people can spend with media–or “participate” in the “news process.” The proliferation of digital information sources may well -raise- the value of product-oriented (old media) news vs. process-oriented (new media) news. If old media abondons lowers its product standards in pursuit of the process ethos, any news organization that preserves old fashioned standards may be a lifeline to the average reader, at sea in an ocean of partial information, who wants to know, with reasonable accuracy and reliability, what happened and what it means.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I'm not saying that there's no value in objectivity (or at the very
    least, fairness), or that there isn't still a place for traditional
    media with “old-fashioned” standards — if anything, I share your
    feeling that these things may become more valuable rather than less.
    But I'm not sure the traditional media are the only ones that are
    capable of supplying those things — I guess maybe that's part of my
    point. Obviously accuracy and reliability and trust still matter, and
    perhaps matter even more now.

  • http://burden.ca/blog/ Tim Burden

    I agree. This presents an opportunity for MSM. It is probably more important than ever for a news organization to maintain its credibility and reliability. How else will readers sort through the morass of comment and opinion that forms around a story? At some point in the “process”, someone with an authoritative voice has to summarize, distill and contextualize the event.

    Even so, I give poor marks to any news site that doesn't allow readers to comment on stories. Comments help other readers get a sense of what people are thinking about an issue, and spark thought and debate about what has happened. But I also question the motives of any outlet that gives priority to speed and “me too” and doesn't check the facts.

  • http://innonate.com/ Nate Westheimer

    Matthew, I'm quite sympathetic to the pressures of modern journalism. But there's a difference between those who try to get it right and those who try to get it first. Those who get it right will win the long-run… I can prove it (and will in an up coming blog post). Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on the matter — and again, I'm sympathetic to these pressures, but I don't find any room for excuses for plain-old bad reporting, such as Riley's, in that sympathy.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    fair enough, Nate.

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