The media of yesterday’s tomorrow

After a bit of fumbling, news media appear to be learning how to use the Internet.

by Sam Blake

Futurology is a wonderful thing. It is nothing if not a lens into the hopes and angst of humanity as it gazes into the future, seeking for the merest glimpse of what wonders it holds. Also, when we actually get to the future, we can all have a hearty laugh at how wrong those sorry bastards in the past were about their predictions. When the Internet came into being, the futurists were chomping at the bit to make predictions about what it would do for human knowledge. After all, the Internet allows both the dissemination and acquisition of knowledge to be performed with massively greater efficiency than was previously possible. There are also many theoretical models, some quite reasonable, that consider an Internet-connected humanity as a sort of distributed intelligence, ostensibly capable of processing tasks no single human, nor even an artificial intelligence, could manage. After all, if two heads are better than one, a few billion heads should be that much better. But, as usual, it seems the futurists have gotten it wrong. Humanity as a supercomputer still doesnâÄôt work very well, since humanity as an entity doesnâÄôt seem to know anything about anything. The knowledge exists, but throw your question up to the wind and youâÄôre much more likely to get white noise (or worse, misinformation) than anything useful. Try asking some questions on Yahoo! Answers if you donâÄôt believe me. One industry that has taken major steps toward incorporating the Internet into its business is the news media. While news reporting is not an intellectual problem per se, the task of providing relevant and accurate information is. Various news outlets have taken several routes in employing the Internet as a tool to improve their output, and different methods have unsurprisingly brought different results. One approach makes use of the âÄúconnectibilityâÄù of the Internet; that is, the ability to quickly access the opinion of an expert. For example, I read a blog called Language Log that is written and published by a collection of academics in the field of linguistics. One of the defining features of Language Log is its use of expertise. The writers of the blogâÄôs posts are not professional writers or journalists; they are academics. When the expertise of the author is insufficient to analyze a technical point, they simply contact a colleague who has the relevant knowledge. If a post receives a response from an expert, they will frequently print the response and provide commentary on it. The result of this approach is very thorough and very accurate reporting. For those who arenâÄôt linguists, consider as an alternative ESPN. While ESPN will occasionally refer to a social tool like Facebook or Twitter, it is generally done only with regard to experts on the subject, like sports journalists or current or former players. Submitted commentary from viewers is given very limited, if any, airtime. Again, the focus is on garnering information from people with specific experience in the field being analyzed. The alternative approach is the use of peopleâÄôs âÄúconnectednessâÄù to maximize the amount of content available to analyze. CNN is the most obvious example of this; viewers are encouraged to provide commentary via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail or text message, and this commentary is given a great deal of airtime. This results in a news experience viewers can presumably relate to more easily. Of course, relatability is hardly the same as accurate or useful coverage. Little or no effort is made by these media outlets to ensure that viewer commentary is insightful or even correct. As a result, news stories are often bogged down with commentary that is not only uneducated but often dangerous to take too seriously. Even worse, to create time for the viewersâÄô points of view, time is cut down for the actually knowledgeable people who can add insight to a discussion. They have thrown out the metaphorical baby and kept the bath water, in which floats the nasty, cruddy bits. But improvement appears to be coming. CNN tried a significant experiment in their commentary of President Barack ObamaâÄôs recent State of the Union address. Rather than just read off a bunch of Twitter comments, as would be their want, they used some clever analytical tricks to essentially convert the Twitter response into a giant opinion poll, but with a more rapid response and greater granularity than traditional polling methods. David Bohrman, CNN senior vice president, said of the experiment, âÄúI think it was a really big moment in how mainstream media can connect up to social media without just running Twitter messages on the bottom of the screen.âÄù While the analysis still lacks the prestige of an expert opinion, it is now on a sufficiently large scale that national opinion trends can be tracked almost in real time, which constitutes a major advance in opinion reporting. What can we take from this? Despite my previous indictment of futuristsâÄô predictive impotence, we should recall that the future still happens; itâÄôs just never how the futurists say it will happen. Technology eventually finds its niche in society, though it may take a few false starts to get there. While it is fair to be critical of media outlets that use new technology poorly, we should also acknowledge if and when they get things right. The end result, if the futurists are right: jetpacks. If theyâÄôre wrong, well, letâÄôs hope theyâÄôre right this time; I really want jetpacks. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]