Wednesday, December 24, 2008

White noise

We have so many things fighting for our attention nowadays. Prior to starting this entry, I was multitasking: importing a CD to mp3s; listening to new music; browser tabs tracking New York Times articles, friends' blogs and online profiles, and best-of lists. In a time of information overload, it's a struggle to discern what sources of information are important and vital from that of ephemera.

Bree Nordenson's article in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review presents a convincing case for how journalists and newspapers can adapt in our age of informational white noise. She argues that journalists and newspapers need to become guides through the information jungle we find online, rather the gatekeepers of the news. They are in a unique position to gather and disseminate a story from multiple angles.

Journalists need to become synthesizers on behalf of the public. One prime example of this role Nordenson cites is the subprime mortgage crisis and NPR. Listeners and even fellow journalists were confused by the complexity of the situation, so NPR News and This American Life devoted an hour-long episode to the topic titled, "The Giant Pool of Money." It became the program's most popular episode in its 13-year history. They followed up the episode with another episode and a blog called Planet Money.

We are in a position where, thanks to the Internet, access to multiple news sources are readily available with almost no monetary cost (unless you consider creating a user account costly). We should be able to discern the truth of the matter due to the multiple sources of information we have on hand. One website I use frequently is Metacritic. It compiles reviews from several sources and tries to calculate an average review score for the movie, DVD, TV show, video game, or music album. (They used to include book reviews, but unfortunately it has since been dropped from their site.) I stick to a handful of reviewers for my entertainment/cultural intake, and the website accomodates that most of the time. I can choose to read about the newest Amadou & Miriam album and find what my favorite critics are saying. It is so useful to have all of that information in one site. And that's what journalists and newspapers need to do now.

That isn't to say that there's no place for a straight news story. There's always a need for nothing-but-the-facts approach to an event. But with everything that's out there on the Internet—news sites, online magazines, personal websites, blogs, discussion forums, article comments, email lists, chatrooms, and so on—it is difficult to stay on top of the news. To stay informed nowadays can be considered a Herculean task, probably akin to cleaning the Augean stables with nothing more than a hand trowel.

I consider myself to be well informed on most subjects, but I sometimes find myself beleaguered by the array of online resources. What's NPR's take on the story? NYT's? Washington Post's? How about The Guardian or The Globe & Mail? What does The AV Club think of this album? Pitchfork? Village Voice? Phoenix New Times? What about that team blog? What is their opinion?

Then there are issues that go a little deeper. How do I handle the underlying biases? Should I be looking for a differing opinion in order to get a balanced view of a story? Is this critic/journalist/writer missing something I should know? All of these are questions I ask myself whenever I approach a topic, and it can be daunting to address them.

When confronted by this white noise of information, what can a reader do? Trying to convert pure information into knowledge and wisdom seems to be the challenge now. Granted, it's not necessarily a new challenge, but the scale of it makes it novel. I'll try to outline my process for dealing with this glut next time.

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