How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload

by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

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How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

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Excerpt: Blur: How To Know What's True In The Age Of Information Overload

When we wrote the manuscript of Blur, in 2009 and early 2010, we opened the book imagining how a nuclear crisis might be covered by the modern media culture.

We picked the nuclear accident that had occurred at the Three Mile Island plant in1979 because there was oral history about what people in the community had heard from the media at the time, as well as copious accounting of the thinking of the journalists who covered the crisis. We chose it, as well, because the partial meltdown at the Pennsylvania nuclear plant occurred at the peak at the age of Big Media. The three commercial broadcast networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, were at the apex of their power. As for print, in most American cities the great newspaper wars were over, leaving one newspaper a monopoly. The victorious papers, flush with record profit and unchallenged by competition, tended to react to their new power by demonstrating new journalistic rectitude and restraint. Americans, by and large, were force fed the news by a mostly homogeneous media system that shared a strong sense of civic obligation, rich balance sheets, and a limited and heavily establishment oriented point of view. If anything, the press during this period, having recently helped topple President Richard Nixon by working to expose his public malfeasance, was frightened by its own power. The kind of sensationalism and exploitation of the news that would come by the late 1990s were far in the future. The kind of chaotic clash of journalistic values and politicization of news that would occur in the first decade of the 21st century were almost impossible to imagine.

We could only imagine, however, how a nuclear disaster would be covered by the media today. Eight months later, in the spring of 2011, we no longer need imagine. The earthquake and Tsunami that struck Japan led to a nuclear crisis even worse than the one in Pennsylvania. In the first few months of the tumultuous year, the media culture would be tested by other wrenching events as well—a brutal shooting of citizens and public officials in Tucson, the extraordinary rolling public uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East. They have all demonstrated both the promise and the peril of the communications revolution.

During the first few months of this tumultuous year, the media culture was tested by wrenching events — the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan that led to a nuclear crisis, a brutal shooting of citizens and public officials in Tucson, and the extraordinary rolling public uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East. They have all demonstrated both the promise and the peril of the communications revolution.

In Tucson, the speed demanded by digital technology helped encourage some of the world's most influential news organizations to make unforgiveable journalistic mistakes. CNN, NPR and the New York Times were among those that erroneously reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died in the Tucson shootings, an error so basic that no serious journalist would ever defend it. Eager to get the news out fast, they took the word of one official on the scene without getting a corroborating source. The mistake, moreover, was spread further — and thus made worse — because the news organizations eager to use all the tools of the new age to reach their audience and demonstrate their modernism didn't just report the error once. They spread and repeated it on Twitter, in email alerts, in RSS feeds and on the web. At the same time, technology made it easier for citizens to notice those mistakes, or at least to notice that some news organizations were reporting one thing while others were reporting something different. Twitter records made it easy for citizens to compare the erroneous reports. And then, publishing their own tweets, these citizen monitors were able to communicate the errors they had noticed. In some case the process from mistake to detection to correction took as little as 15 minutes. NPR and the New York Times, among others, probably were quicker to admit their errors than they might have at any other time in their history. The mistakes, and the corrections, owed a good deal to the speed, the demands and the impact of digital technology and the web.

Another sign of the new age was the presence of citizen reporters delivering the news first hand. During the Japanese earthquake, CNN relied movingly on its "iReporters," a network of eyewitness citizen contributors who send homemade videos to the network. The editors of the iReport team sit in the middle of CNN's newsroom, and whenever compelling video comes in they alert the television producers and editors of CNN's homepage about what they have. Perhaps the most memorable was shot by an American teacher named Ryan McDonald, who went outside with a video camera and discovered that the quake was more intense than he expected. "Oh my God, the building's going to fall," he cries out. When CNN wanted to put McDonald on the air, he used Skype and a computer headset to field the interview from his home.

The extraordinary winter of 2011 also exposed the effects of the diminished resources in newsrooms that had been brought about by the digital revolution. Only three American newspapers still had full foreign reporting staffs — the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Only one U.S. cable news channel has a comparable number of foreign reporters and bureaus, CNN. The three broadcast networks could claim a dozen foreign offices, but these are not full bureaus staffed by correspondents, and the one-person offices were quickly taxed to the breaking point. As uprisings rolled from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Bahrain, to Libya, to Yemen, and then Syria, the news media struggled to keep up. As the protests moved on, largely so did the coverage. We understood the street protests that were trying to force Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt quite well. We learned much less about the more complex, less visible, but ultimately more important results of the overthrow that followed. Once Mubarak stepped aside, the mass of protestors went back to their lives. It was left to more organized groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and former government officials, to maneuver and fill the power void. That story was far less reported, and far less well understood as a result.

There were many mistakes, too, beyond the big ones so quickly noticed in Tucson. On a single day, as the Japanese struggled to use sea water to try to cool melting reactor coils in the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan, we saw reports on one cable news channel that the maneuver was working, on a second that it was failing, and on a third that the results were unknown. With its emphasis on live reporting from the scene, cable news often left one with a sense of facts out of time, and a subtle uncertainty about the meaning of the "wall paper" pictures shown while talk show guests were interviewed. On a variety of evenings, for instance, we watched CNN's Anderson Cooper emoting from the scene, but the facts he had sounded as if they were already obsolete, at least to anyone who had read the online version of the story that would appear in the next morning's New York Times. The Times story was written and reported by a group of journalists who lived in Japan, teamed with those who covered nuclear power as a beat. Then, adding to the confusion, CNN aired footage of the tsunami, which might have been a week old but was not identified. What are we seeing? When did it happen? Are these current pictures or are we seeing them because they are the most dramatic? And does this nuclear expert, who had been interviewed on the air with CNN for much of the day, really have the most up-to-date information? And this was the channel that had more people reporting from the country than its rivals. One sensed an event being exploited rather than covered.

We also were treated to the spectacle of news organizations fighting with each other on the air. The least savory moment came when a Fox News correspondent named Jennifer Griffin alleged that journalists from CNN and Reuters had allowed themselves to be used as human shields by the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi to thwart an allied air attack. CNN correspondent Nic Robertson called the report "outrageous and absolutely hypocritical," and said reporters went on government sponsored tours of the war zone so that they could verify facts and not get their information secondhand. "When you come to somewhere like Libya," Robertson said angrily, "you expect lies and deceit from a dictatorship — you don't expect it from the other journalists." He also said Griffin's suggestion that no Fox staffers had gone on the trip was untrue, a mistake for which she later had to apologize. But that was only the beginning. Fox's correspondent Steve Harrigan fired back with an ad hominem attack on Robertson, accusing him of being "dull," going on a "propaganda trip," and that his idea of news reporting was "bullshit." He then said that Robertson would have talked to him in person "if he was a man." Robertson in turn said of Harrigan: "I see him more times at breakfast than I see him out on trips." Lovely. We doubt any of this brings credit to either side or to the press in general. The reality is that journalists in war zones cover the news at their peril and increasingly they are targets. The same week, four New York Times reporters were captured in Libya during the crisis by Gaddafi forces. The best journalists understand their shared risk, and recognize that they work in common purpose to get at the truth and help the public understand the facts.

The digital technology transforming the news industry also played a profound part in helping bring the uprisings about in the first place. The revolution was in significant part rooted in young, technologically adept citizens in these countries, using Twitter, e-mail, social networking, and the Web to organize and communicate. The digital tools also helped them trick and outmaneuver authorities trying to monitor and squelch that communication. In Egypt, protest organizers would send out fake e-mail and Twitter traffic to persuade officials that were meeting in one place when the real protests would occur elsewhere.

In the eight months since the first edition of Blur was published, we have received some familiar questions at almost every event where we have talked about the book. On balance, do these new technologies and tools make the truth easier to get or harder? Are we becoming more informed or more confused? To what extent does the information revolution have anything to do with the enormous new levels of political polarization and incivility in our public discourse? The answer to all these questions, we believe, is the same: The answer to whether things are better or worse is yes, both. We can be better informed than ever before and also more confused; the truth is easier to see and also harder. And yes, the new technology contributes to political polarization. But it does so only because it feeds divides that already exist.

Excerpted from Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Copyright 2011 by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.