Media overload

Someone, presumably who knows who I am because of Defiance, Ohio asked me what I thought a good strategy to stay informed and conscious about what’s happening in the world without being inundated with biased or incorrect information. This question was strangely aligned with things I had been thinking about and speakers and readings in my How 21st Century Media Work class at Medill.

Here’s my answer:

I’ve been doing some reading lately that has made me think about issues
connected to your question. Jack Fuller, a long-time Chicago journalist
recently wrote a book called “What is Happening to News: The Information
th Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism.” He makes two assertions
that really helped me make sense of the current media moment. First, we
live in a world where we have a ton of information and technology to
push that information at us in a relentless stream. This, Fuller says,
creates a consistent response in the human brain – it puts us in a state
of emotional excitement that makes us respond more to emotional information.

As people who create information (news organizations, advertisers,
musicians) have to compete with more information, they try to leverage
the way our brains work by creating information that we will respond
emotionally to and thus pay attention over all the other noise. The
heated debates between pundits (or wingnuts) on cable news are a good
example of this.

Fuller’s second contention is that we live in a time where people are
less trusting of authority (whether it is information from the
mainstream media, the government, academics, experts, etc). This, he
says, is a huge shift from the generation that came of age during WWII
who saw a structured, hierarchical society as a feature that helped win
the war. This observation was really important to me because it made me
rethink the idea that progressives were necessarily exceptional in our
questioning of authority. We may just be guided within a larger dynamic
of skepticism. Certainly there is as much skepticism on the right as
there is among progressives. The main difference is who those groups
define as the authorities to be questioned.

So far, I haven’t really answered your question, but I think Fuller’s
two points are important for how I now think about news and information
in the world. Before I finally get down to an answer, I want to talk
about what motivates me to seek out information. A big part of that is
the idea of radicalism in the Ella Baker sense of the term:
understanding and addressing the social condition at its root. To get
to this understanding or action, it takes a lot of inquiry, questioning
and dialog, part of which can happen through media.

– From what you wrote, it sounds like knowing what’s happening in the
world and using that information to get a sense of injustice or paths to
justice is important to you. Obviously, consuming information and
talking to people about that information is a big part of that process.
However, many issues are complicated and nuanced and information
providers don’t always do a good job of capturing the things they report
with depth or nuance. Still, I think its important to interact with
information in a critical but not necessarily adversarial way (which is
hard given what I mentioned earlier about a lot of information being
presented in a way that has high emotional impact – in many cases that
means in an adversarial way).

As a journalism student I realized how easy it is to insert bias,
inaccuracy, narrowness, or prejudice into a story, not because the
reporter or news outlet is evil or wants to be manipulative but because
of other factors. Maybe the journalist’s experience (or lack of
experience) keeps her from asking all the questions about a story or
seeking a full range of sources? Maybe sources aren’t willing to talk
to the journalist because of their perceptions about the media or the
journalist (warranted or not). Perhaps there just isn’t time, space or
resources to fully explore the story. In any case, I think both media
producers and others interacting with media and information are best
served by trying to get a complete picture. Instead of asking “is this
right or wrong”, it might be more productive to ask, “what doesn’t make
sense?”, “what questions aren’t answered?” or “how might the
writer/publication’s experience mediate what I’m reading/seeing/hearing?”

Besides providing nformation, another thing that information providers
do is to frame issues. They define what the “sides” are to a debate (or
whether there’s a debate at all) and what the “left”, “right” and
“center” of an issue are. Given the perceived need to make information
have emotional weight, I think its really easy for information providers
to pick voices and framings that are loud and provocative but aren’t
necessarily the most productive or relevant. I think people interacting
with information shouldn’t just assume the framings we’re provided. One
of the best techniques I’ve been taught as a student reporter is to ask
sources, “what person/perspective who is on a different side of the
issue do you most respect?” rather than just picking the most outspoken
voices. If reporters aren’t doing this, then those interacting with the
media need to.

Finally, as much as I feel like a “fuck the news” mentality isn’t very
productive and is sort of the same as prescribing to the idea that
“ignorance is bliss”, I think it’s a mentality that’s completely
understandable. However, I think it’s important to separate concerns
about the accuracy, depth and nuance of information from feelings of
being overwhelmed by information. As I’ve mentioned a lot already, much
of the information that we interact with today is designed to illicit an
emotional response, in many cases, one that borders on stress. This can
be really, really overwhelming. There was a great episode of a Boston
Radio show called “The Theory of Everything” that I heard once that I
can no longer find but maybe you can where the producer talked about
being overwhelmed by trying to stay informed about the Iraq war. I
think it’s okay to take breaks from media and to accept that there are
limitations to how much information we can synthesize both rationally
and emotionally. Failing to do so can hurt our ability to use
information constructively as much as complete ignorance can.

The short answer, as best I can say for myself is this: consume
information in an emotionally sustainable way, ask critical but not
necessarily adversarial questions and seek out additional information
that helps answer your questions.

Photo by martinhoward via Flickr