Award-winning journalist Peter Laufer brings wit and clarity to the news in his latest book, Slow News (Oregon State University Press, 2014). Laufer argues that both the field journalist and the home consumer can benefit from taking time to ruminate on the news. In this excerpt from Part Two, "Who Are the Media & What Are the Sources?" he suggests that turning off the 24-hour news altogether allows consumers to make their own decisions about what news is worth investigating.
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We news consumers are conditioned to flick on the TV news and let the so-called 24-hour news cycle dictate the interpretation of a day’s events to us. But we can break that habit, without losing touch with the common curriculum of news shared with friends and neighbors.
Take breaks from the assault of nonstop news. Just because all news radio stations offer “all news all the time” does not mean you must listen to “traffic and weather together” every ten minutes. Just because newspapers perpetually update their websites doesn’t mean you must keep reloading the homepage, follow their tweets, and note their smart phone app alerts and read their email updates.
I just bought today’s San Francisco Chronicle, my hometown newspaper. It costs a dollar these days. It’s almost noon. That means most of the news in this newspaper is going to be yesterday’s, or the day before yesterday’s: Yesterday’s news tomorrow! My Slow News motto.
I hold the paper and enjoy the feel of its pages and the smell of the ink as I explore the printed photographs, all while sipping a leisurely cup of tea. The texture of the images is different from their pixilated cousins glowing on my iPad when I read the Chronicle on its website. As I look at the headlines and read those stories that interest me further than just a glance at the headlines, I see nothing I needed to know yesterday. I didn’t need a bulletin flashed to me announcing that a National Institute on Drug Abuse study was released, a study that concluded teenage marijuana use is increasing (the subject of one of the articles in this issue). There was no urgency in my learning that census results indicate black and white Americans are choosing to integrate.
A prime example of yesterday’s news tomorrow is a debate reported in this paper, a story buried deep on page three of the third section. The article is about a proposal to reduce automobile traffic in San Francisco and raise needed revenue for the city by charging a toll for each car that crosses into the city limits from adjacent San Mateo County. Yesterday I heard the story reported on the all-news radio station in San Francisco, KCBS. The announcer sounded more than excited, the delivery was quasi-frantic. The radio report included excerpts of speeches by lawmakers. The politicians from San Mateo County were decrying the arrogant elitism of the San Francisco policymakers. The lawmakers from San Francisco were bloviating about crowded streets and city debt. The story was repeated throughout the day on the radio, relentlessly. But by the close of business at city hall, the idea was dismissed as a non-starter.
When I saw the truncated story deep in the newspaper, I could dismiss it with a glance at the headline, a headline that announced in a small typeface: “San Francisco Supervisors Back Away from ‘Southern Gateway’ Toll.”
The Slow News technique for dealing with breaking-news hysteria blasting out of your car radio is a simple one. Switch the channel from the all-news station to a music station. Even though it can be compelling to listen to the breathless announcer tease upcoming stories, change the station. You rarely need to hear the play-by-play of the day’s news assaulting you from the car’s speakers. It’s not a baseball game. Or be daring! Shut off the radio and enjoy the quiet. Contemplate. Meditate. Every few hours check in with the news station for a summary of events if you really fear you may miss something important to you.
Such an exercise—checking the news every few hours—is not necessary. In today’s overmediated societies, you can relax with your favorite music or in silence, confident that if there is an earthquake, war, or vital celebrity divorce someone nearby will find out in an instant via their iPhone, Twitter feed, or a Google alert, and they’ll feel compelled to tell you immediately. Then you can switch over to the all-news station for details about something you choose to learn about rather than just being a passive consumer of news noise packaged to make it sound important.
Ration your television news viewing time: CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and other TV news assaults. Yes, the pictures of some breaking news stories are important cultural artifacts to share. But in general the news consumers’ time is best spent with other-than-television news sources.
Wean yourself from the perpetual drone of CNN and its all-news cousins, from their repetitive and superficial treatment of what they consider is the news. CNN is seductively addictive, especially when there is breaking international news—war, political turmoil, or natural disasters, for typical examples. Give us a juicy scandal like Tiger Woods and his so-called sex addiction or the South Carolina governor ditching his wife for a South American rendezvous with his Argentine mistress or the ongoing post-Arab Spring turmoil and it’s easy to slip into the Laz-E-Boy for endless updates. Sometimes there are those iconic pictures and sounds that are important to see and hear. One time. Or maybe twice. Remember the images of the World Trade Center buildings under attack or Katrina-flooded New Orleans or even of some royal wedding. But more often than not CNN and the others repeat the same few seconds loop of misery or weirdness over and over and over again; it’s input we can do without, and which unnecessarily add to our understandable upset about the state of our poor world.
When I talked about the Slow News Movement on the Oregon Public Broadcasting radio show “Think Out Loud,” Portland psychologist Ruth Parvin sent an email to the show explaining that she often prescribes “news-free days” to her patients to combat anxiety and depression. “I believe that the more primitive part of the brain reacts to each repetition of a murder, fire, or other awful thing as though it is a new event,” she theorized. “If we hear about the same shooting fifteen times a day, that does not count as simply one event but somehow alerts the nervous system every single time we hear it.”
Of course there are exceptions to this rule. There are times when a report on CNN or its competition provides a neat package that thoroughly brings us up to date on something important that we previously knew too little about. CNN shows its pedigree at times of disaster, when it dedicates its resources to the one breaking story. Such coverage to many viewers is a reminder of the story that established the network’s international fame—the first Gulf War. CNN’s brave correspondents remained in Iraq after the bombing of Baghdad began, their reports narrating images that are iconic for our era: the yellow tracers criss-crossing the city’s night sky, and the sky itself turned an unnatural sickly green once it arrived on living-room screens around the world. But such instances are few indeed and rarely worth the waste of time spent wading through the vacuous pabulum that endlessly precedes and follows those moments of valuable cable TV news.
We’re conditioned by broadcasters to think that we need to know what is going on as it is going on. That’s rarely the case. And in the rush to immediacy, CNN’s reporters and their competitors’ often shove material on the air before they know what it means, and long before they can interpret the events with any depth or consequence. A Tom Tomorrow cartoon on my office wall sums up the problem. A TV news talking head says, “Welcome to Short Attention Span News! Here’s a picture of the president! It looks like something’s happening in another country! Well, that’s all for today! Tune in again tomorrow—for as much news as we think you need to know!”
Once safely ensconced in the White House, President Obama lashed out at “a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy. What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get fifteen minutes on the news, or your fifteen minutes of fame, is to be rude.” He’s correct. Those rude remarks are repeated incessantly, repackaged with usually vacuous “updates” designed to keep you in front of the tube. Be rude or do something shocking or be a victim of a disaster or crime. The media-savvy president is a master television craftsman, but in today’s breaking news marketplace, where noise often trumps ideas, he’s challenged trying to compete with the rude and the shocking.
The instant availability of perpetual newscasting makes CNN an easy diversion from what haunts us. Syndicated columnist David Sirota, a fellow at the progressive think tank Campaign for America’s Future, believes that scandal “gets us to turn on the television, tune in to the latest manufactured drama, and drop out of the real battle for the republic’s future.” He’s correct, too. How empty or burdened are our own lives if we can be titillated continuously by the indiscretions of others? Better to take a walk with the dog than to watch one more time as another apologetic politician or athlete descends from hero to zero in front of the cameras.
Yet it is easy to be a victim of the box. We can rationalize flicking on the BBC, CNN, or even Fox News for a fix of what’s supposedly important; there may be something happening that’s important to know. (Fox News, of course, for the satisfaction of not only a hit of news, but also as a reminder of how perverse its version of its slogan “Fair and balanced” continues to be.) So what to do? How to follow the Slow News dictum that you shut off the all-news television channels whenever you can?
The first step is to realize that most of what’s fed to us on the all-news TV channels can be gleaned from a quick glance at a newspaper or a website devoted to the news. You can prove this to yourself with a simple exercise. With a pad of paper, a pencil, and a stopwatch, tune in for an hour of CNN or its equivalent. In a column, note the time spent watching commercials and promotional announcements for other shows on the channel. In another column note how much time is spent promoting upcoming stories on the show you’ve tuned in to watch. Finally, keep a count of how many stories are broadcast during that hour and how much of the hour is used telling you vital details about those stories. I promise you that you’ll be shocked by how little time is devoted to what passes for news coverage and by how few stories are covered during the hour even though their treatment is minimalist.
Now, using the same amount of time occupied by those few stories during your sample TV hour, look through a newspaper—any decent daily. Or do the same exercise with the website of a newspaper or a news aggregator (CNN’s website included), no matter their political point of view. I guarantee you’ll pump more information into your brain faster when you’re far from the churning TV talking heads. In addition, you get the obvious advantage of deciding for yourself which story to read past the headlines and how much detail you want about each story.
Credible professional surveys suggest the above exercise will teach you that you’re not learning much in return for all the hours spent watching the news channels. According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “The coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.” Some fifteen hundred Americans nationwide were asked questions about current affairs, a sample that Pew called representative. The study concludes, “On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly twenty years ago.” Not that the scores of citizen awareness were much to write home about—an example: only about three quarters of those polled by Pew could name the vice president of the United States.
Some newspapers responded to the 24-hour news cycle by creating a new editorial position: the continuous news editor. As domestic correspondent for what The New York Times calls its Continuous News desk, David Stout explained his role. “We are always trying to balance speed and accuracy,” he told readers of the brand. “My job is to write a quicker, and therefore less detailed version of an article . . . than will appear in the following day’s newspaper. I think there is a need for both kinds of articles in this day of 24-hour news.”
Not that the transition to digital and its various platforms is so easy to carry out in a system that was designed in the era of hot-lead type created by hulking Linotype machines. In September 2010, Corriere della Sera ’s editor-in-chief, Ferruccio de Bortoli, wrote a letter to his colleagues at the paper explaining how, given the deep and fast changes in the industry, “all the agreements and business practices that have hitherto governed our industrial relations no longer make sense.” According to de Bortoli, it was unacceptable that part of the editorial staff refused to work on the Web or demanded special remuneration for it and was reluctant to engage in training programs for the new technologies. They welcomed the success of the paper’s Web TV with suspicion, the editor said, and he noted that the iPad edition did not include the contribution of any journalists from the paper edition. The harsh tone of the letter caused a two-day strike and started a labor dispute between the editor-in-chief, the editorial board, and the publisher. In February 2011, according to the editorial board, “the wall dividing paper staff and Web staff remained intact.”
Of course the transition to digital continues, bringing radical changes to the media business. David Stout may be right, the Times may need to protect its flanks from bloggers and serve its subscribers with credible news reports generated at a blogger’s fast pace. But that doesn’t mean we need to pay attention 24/7. There is news that we need to know immediately—reports of threats to our welfare, like bombs exploding in downtown Boston. And then there is news that can wait until reporters corroborate it and ensure that it is correct; for example reports of arrests for the Boston Marathon bombings.
The Slow News rule: Don’t pay attention just because the TV and radio and newspaper are all yelling, “Pay attention!” The Fox News slogan is, “We report, you decide.” The Slow News slogan is, “You decide whether to pay attention to what they report.”
Reprinted with permission from Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer by Peter Laufer and published by Oregon State University Press, 2014.