Rx for Info Overload


One of my goals as a press observer is to explain how journalists do what they do. If you tell people about how you gather information and put together a story, you’ll gain their confidence a lot faster than by keeping the process a mystery or by writing in stentorian tones to give the impression that you’ve just engraved gospel onto a stone tablet.

In this vein, a friend recently suggested that I try—”try” is the key word—to suggest ways for people to navigate through today’s information overload and become reasonably well-informed without making it a full-time job the way news addicts like myself do. So here goes.

First, some guidelines about how to “read” news stories. Never assume that a single article or report on a given day is the whole story. Journalism is a mosaic-like process. Good reporters create the mosaic by not starting with a preconceived design. Each story on a particular subject is but one tile, just a beginning—and maybe flawed. The next story on that subject adds a new tile, perhaps some new perspective—and so on until an intelligible picture begins to emerge. Think of the Karl Rove/CIA leak story. It’s now more than two years old and a number of pieces have fallen into place, but the mosaic still has large gaps and is not yet coherent. Why has it taken so long? Mostly, it’s because the case has been in the hands of a very tight-lipped federal prosecutor who holds most of the pieces. When he finally speaks, maybe the picture will clear. But there are other reasons, too, why a story may take a long time to come out of the fog. Government secrecy. An inattentive press. Or a press corps with a pack mentality that charges off occasionally on false leads. We’re human and fallible; keep that in mind when you’re getting your news of the day.

Readers often ask journalists for suggestions on where to look for the news amid the 24-hour cacophony of newspapers, the Internet, radio, and television.

TELEVISION: Though there are many skilled journalists working in network television, the medium has become predominantly one of diversion, amusement, and escape. The news budgets have been slashed and the result is quite sad. Investigative journalism is almost nonexistent. Cable television networks like Fox and CNN say they do news around the clock, but much of it is similarly entertainment and blab. For a person who has limited time to keep up with events, skip television news—except perhaps when a major event occurs somewhere in the world and television allows you to watch it live. One exception to the rule is BBC News; it’s serious and thorough. And its tone is a refreshing antidote to American TV’s breathless and hyped presentation of the news.

NEWSPAPERS: I believe it’s important to regularly read a major paper like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. These are papers that give you a broad spread of information every day—from international news to finance to the arts to sports to the crossword puzzle. The major papers are also one of the few places where you’ll find serious, in-depth investigative stories—journalism that gets behind the official pronouncements of governments, corporations, and other power centers. (No government I’ve ever observed has spoken with an abiding commitment to truth.)

THE INTERNET: I am not the most versed adviser on the universe of digital news, though I did work at a dotcom for a while to learn what the new world was about. Now I use the Internet a lot, going to data collection and research sites to find dates, places, stories, quotes, and documents. The Internet is very important for anyone who wants to understand how the world is communicating today. But do not assume that everything on the Web has been fact-checked. The situation is quite the opposite much of the time. I hesitate to recommend specific sites because these are matters of personal interest and judgment.

The wonderful thing about the Internet for a journalist is that it links you to every part of the planet. The terrible thing about the Internet is that it has a highly addictive quality. For reporters—who should, if at all possible, be where the story is happening—it can produce journalism that is empty of tactile authenticity and emotion.

There’s a lot of information out there—more than we’ve ever seen before floating around in the public domain. It is only information, though, meaning it’s not necessarily solid or believable or the last word. It may be just pieces of “information” gathered together on a website. And often the website has been created by a person or organization with an ax to grind. In my experience, the best method for understanding—and accepting—the confusion and absurdities of the world is to visit multiple sources of news, say, a newspaper or two, plus a site or two on the Internet you’re comfortable with. By comfortable, I don’t mean a site that carries material you agree with. There is never only one way to look at an event or an issue. A mind is a terrible thing to close.

Some final notes. More often than is healthy, the press becomes a herd, focusing on one story and one story only until the public is begging for respite. That’s been happening with the Karl Rove story. And then suddenly last week, sorcerer George Bush waved his Rove-crafted wand and nominated a new man for the Supreme Court, John Roberts. En masse, the Washington press corps deserted the besieged Rove and descended on Roberts. The silence about Rove continues as I write. But never fear. As soon as the Senate confirms Roberts, he will disappear into the news void and Rove will have all the attention again. This is called now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t journalism.

Finally, since honest journalists and the companies they work for make mistakes fairly regularly, like other professions and the rest of humanity, one thing the consumer should look for is whether a news company is good at acknowledging mistakes in a timely and clear and prominent manner. That’s a news organization you want to include in your daily diet.