April 9, 2007

Journalism and Social Mythology

The single worst thing to happen to print journalism in the past 50 years was the introduction of USA Today. It introduced a damaging idea in two parts: That print journalism can/should compete with television journalism graphically and temporally.

I’ll not deal with the graphics here, except to say that I find USA Today ugly and The New York Times beautiful. Call it an “aesthetic of seriousness.”

What I want to deal with here is the temporal issue. Television is time-bound in a way print (and the internet) is not. If you want a cogent analysis of why this makes television a difficult medium for news, read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Because the usual 30-minute newscast is bound by the need for visuals and the reading speed of normal human beings, it can only deliver so much content in terms of words. The popular (and very rough) comparison is that a typical news program delivers roughly the same number of words as half a front page of a typical newspaper.

One of the ideas behind USA Today, following from television as a medium of a certain kind, is that Americans have short attention spans for news (and in general). I’ve always thought this was a load of malarkey, largely because I do not trust the current practices of journalism to be able to accurately assess such things. As proof, I offer any typical “trend” article that runs in any typical newspaper nearly every day. For a discussion of why these articles are nearly always faulty, read A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos.

An ongoing study by Poynter may challenge the popular mythology about American’s short attention spans for news (thanks to my buddy Jay Manifold for the link). Here’s the upshot:

Readers select stories of particular interest and then read them thoroughly.

And there’s a twist: The reading-deep phenomenon is even stronger online than in print.

At a time when readers are assumed to have short attention spans, especially those who read online, this qualifies as news.

That last line disturbs me. I think it is entirely true. But I would ask: Why should this be news? Why shouldn’t journalism have long understood that citizens will spend time on news that interests them (and we ain’t talkin’ scalps and corpses here)?

A partial answer: Journalists are poorly trained in, and generally have a poor understanding of, statistics and science. And this situation is all the more acute when it comes to misunderstanding the very media they use to give citizens “the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

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