The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Media Mirror

Towards holographic coverage.

Here's a New Media essay I wrote four years ago that I recently came across. It has several points that still hold up today.

For the last few months I've been listening to the news on WFCR (88.5 on your FM dial) every morning while getting dressed or whatever. It comes out of UMass and is affiliated with National Public Radio, so their news has a liberal slant to it, but it's still worthwhile listening to because it is more indepth than the news you typically get over the radio. Being purely audio, it also has less of the distracting slickness and special effects of TV news. You can concentrate on the information rather than the flashy visuals, which is a help to a simpleton like me who has a hard time listening and viewing at the same time (not to mention trying to pull on my socks).

Anyway, they cut away periodically from NPR so a staff member can read some local news. Recently I was struck by a clever phrase used in one of the stories (I forget what about) and thought it was an example of good newswriting.

About a half-hour later I was reading the Springfield Republican when lo and behold I came across the exact same phrase in a news article. In fact, I recognized several sentences! It suddenly dawned on me that the person reading the local news on WFCR was not as clever a newswriter as I had thought. What they were actually doing was creating a news story by reading a couple of paragraphs verbatim from an article in the Springfield paper!

The media in some ways is like a hall of mirrors in a funhouse, the kind where the mirrors are arranged at such an angle that you see the same image reflected over and over again into infinity. To an extent beyond what most people realize, any one media outlet is most likely to present what the other media outlets are reporting; not necessarily in the exact copycat manner I uncovered at WFCR, but pretty darn close.

For example I recently wrote here that I read at least three newspapers a day, prompting a few people to comment that they couldn't imagine where I found the time to read three papers. I informed them that because of copycat reporting, it actually takes little more time to read three papers than to read one, because many of the same articles appear in all three papers. Most papers get some of their content from the Associated Press and other syndicated news outlets, meaning that the same articles will appear word for word in each one. So once I've read one mainstream paper all the way thru, I've also read more than half of every other paper I pick up. Therefore all I have to do is skim for the articles unique to that particular paper that I haven't read in the previous ones. It's sometimes amazing how few articles that turns out to be.

Dan Yorke used to joke that the local TV stations have a fifty-cent a day investigative journalism budget - the price of a subscription to the Springfield Newspapers! He was exaggerating of course, but the fact is a lot of what we see on local TV news seems to be stories that appeared first in the local newspaper, after which apparently a camera crew was sent out to make a video version of what the newspaper published. Personally I don't think the public interest is well served by the echo chamber the news media has become on all levels.

What is the cause of this phenomenon? For one thing the news media in general is becoming increasingly competitive from a purely financial perspective. The truth is the primary purpose of the media is not to altruistically inform the public (however their promotional ads may suggest otherwise). The purpose of a newspaper, TV or radio station is to present content that will attract an audience that can then be shown the advertising which their customers have paid for. The bigger the audience, the higher the price the media outlet can sell the ads for. Therefore there is a cutthroat struggle to offer whatever will attract the largest audience at the cheapest price, in order to create the biggest profit margin.

Current events coverage is increasingly the victim of this process. The audience for news is shrinking, in part because the politicized, bureaucratized and dumbed down public schools in this country are no longer producing a reading public. But whatever it is that has caused the single most ironic paradox of our time - that the most technologically advanced society in human history has a rising rate of illiteracy - it results in less and less of an interest in newspapers or the broadcasting of current events. Among those who are still reading, obviously the internet offers many more choices of how to aquire information about current events, and increasingly the internet is the only place where you can get truly indepth news.

The result is shrinking budgets for traditional newsrooms, requiring an increasing attempt to get stories on the cheap, and fewer resources to do the purely independent reporting that provides the variety of information and insights needed for an informed democracy. What we too often get instead is a homogenized blend of the same stories geared to the lowest common denominator. The goal becomes to try and print or broadcast those things that everyone is interested in, which has meant shallow news (with a heavy emphasis on violence and celebrity) weather (now expanded to take up almost a third of all newscasts) and sports (again with an emphasis on violence and celebrity). Some may feel intellectually starved by this diet, but they are too few in number to justify catering to them.

Fortunately, coming to the rescue may be the internet, with the realization of the concept of "holographic coverage." A hologram is a kind of 3D image that is created by a wide range of images coming from different directions that together combine to create an image that can seen from all sides. The media equivalent of that would be events covered from a wide range of perspectives that combine to present a more realistic and complete account of what really happened.

And from where would come this multi-faceted account? In many cases it would be the actual participants and witnesses of the event itself. Suppose there was a big concert at the Springfield Civic Center attended by 8,000 people. Now suppose that hundreds, or even thousands of people in the audience describe how they experienced the show? The result would be that the show would be described, photographed and recorded from many different perspectives, forming a kind of informational hologram of the show. That way anyone who is interested in that event can explore it to whatever depth they are willing to delve into the number of facts, observations and opinions offered by the participants. That would no doubt also be followed by another wave of thoughts and observations stimulatd by the original commentary by those who were not participants but who have thoughts and opinions based on the original reports. It would be the same hall of mirrors effect we have today, but with many more opinions and over a much wider range.

The army of self-appointed observers are already beginning to form. I read recently that 25% of all children under 15 in the United States today have blogs or websites. In other words a whole generation of people are coming along where large numbers are already routinely describing the events that occur in their lives and what they think about those events. Many are also taking pictures and putting those up too. Fast forward twenty years and you've got a whole new kind of media, holographic in its completeness, with a combined level of insight and detail that not even the most sophisticated news organizations today could match.

This will likely result in more information being generated about any given news event than any one person would care to know. But that's okay. Better too much information than today's problem of too little.

This student partyhouse at 33 Fearing Street in Amherst shows its school pride.

In front of the Amherst Starbuck's this afternoon they were giving out free samples of their baked goods served in paper cups. I had a delicious cup of homemade banana bread!

Some of you have been emailing me with questions about how my lost brother John is doing these days after having battled back from a near fatal attack of cancer. Here's an excerpt from a recent email:

John had a PET scan in April which came out 100% clean -- lymphoma is still in complete remission. He had his first Rituxan infusion the next week -- he will have that every 3 months to help maintain the remission. He has been getting stronger and stronger -- the end of June will be the six month mark for his transplant. At that point, most of the restrictions on his activities will be taken off. He is working almost full time -- still gets a bit tired though. His taste buds have returned and he is eating well. He's gained back about 10 pounds of the 30 he lost. We have taken several car trips during the last month -- driving is one thing he can do right now. We love to go towards Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, and Reno. There's usually a festival of some kind going on and we can enjoy the nice weather and watch the activities.

We are happy about summer coming up. We will finish this school year on June 6. We have plans to travel to Massachusetts, Idaho, and Wyoming. We do so appreciate all of your kindness and prayers. God is good and we are certainly thankful for His blessings.

Connie & John

So after that happy report, I leave you with a tasty serving of Hot Fuckin Tuna.

A teacher reminds her class of tomorrow's final exam.

"Now class, I won't tolerate any excuses for you not being here tomorrow. I might consider a nuclear attack or a serious personal injury or illness, or a death in your immediate family but that's it, no other excuses whatsoever!"

A smart-ass guy in the back of the room raises his hand and asks, "What would you say if tomorrow I said I was suffering from complete and utter sexual exhaustion?"

The class does its best to stifle their laughter.

The teacher smiles sympathetically at the student, shakes her head and sweetly says, "Well, then I guess you'll just have to write the exam with your other hand."


Mary E.Carey said...

That essay on new media more than holds up! Maybe sometime you could gather links to a bunch of your essays like this one in a post. It would be a really good resource.

Tim said...


I remember a few years ago, I don't remember if it was the 04' presidential race or 01' but Rush Limbaugh played one of the mainstream media puppets parroting something about G.W. Bush lacking "gravitas," a term meaning lacking depth I think. A rarely used latin term. Then he played about 8 more idiot puppets from the alphabet channels and the cable news networks except Fox. Every one of the sheep bleeted the "gravitas" line. He's done this often. Hell, my kids, the youngest of whom is 18 know its a big con job. Thats why the media as our parents knew it, is on life support. Good riddance!