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Reporters or Voyeurs? Media Trapped in Real Time

It always stops me in my tracks when a television anchor utters a phrase that somehow references the real world as separate from the world of television journalism.  As in:  “Well, I guess out there in the real world….”  Say what?  As if they forget, for a second, that the sets aren’t real and the stories are. So it’s probably not surprising that, in the latest CNN Opinion Research poll, 70% of the respondents answered “yes” to the question “Are the media out of touch with average Americans?”

What’s most interesting about this is that the rest of the world is busy trying to get in touch with average Americans. Well, maybe everyone except Wall Street.  But certainly every consumer products company, every arts institution, every brand worth its salt is desperately seeking information and understanding – trying to listen to the consumer, seek feedback from the consumer, customize for the consumer. All in the interest of engagement.

In that environment – enabled by digital technology and research methodologies that make use of social platforms – somehow the media and the markets have gone separate ways.  And in place of engagement, media have chosen…blind spectacle? 

It’s no secret the old school press is demoralized and disoriented by the vast changes in our communications landscape.  Some of these changes revolve around economic and business model issues, but not all of them.  The other issues are ego-driven, all about authority and privileged information and front row seats, things that are being challenged by the democratization of tools and authorship.  So, wallets and egos bruised, desperate for ratings/readership and apparently completely freaked out that information now does not belong to them alone, media – and electronic media in particular – have done the equivalent of putting their collective hands over their ears and humming.

Their solution has been to fight off the wolves with lowest common denominator crap, trusting themselves in all their infinite media wisdom to “know” the audience even while the audience is voting online that the media doesn’t know them at all. 

Perhaps they should call Detroit.

In the new book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, author Viktor Mayer-Schonberger makes the point that without editing and without deletion, all facts carry equal weight and thereby actually endanger reasoning and perspective.  The brain forgets things for a reason.  He is discussing this from the perspective of digital abundance, but the same case could be made for information abundance as well.

As long as electronic media insist, for example, that a story about a pair of people who had eight children and now don’t get along is equal or more important than stories about climate change, war, health and economics, our collective reasoning and perspective are endangered.  Literally, not figuratively.

So while they struggle for ratings points, we struggle for perspective.  Ironically, this state of affairs presents them an opportunity.  Strategically, they are in a position to take a leadership position on the information flow as opposed to simply trying to capture the stream as it flows by.  So why don’t they?

It’s curious, actually.  Last week, Craig Newmark wrote a piece for the Huffington Post where he called “trust” the new black and called for a new model for news curation.  And Jon Stewart got a lot of attention with his brilliant video lampooning CNN for fact checking Saturday Night Live instead of Congressmen who make up numbers.  TIME magazine’s cover story this week on the divide between Main St. and Wall St. suggests turning off partisan outlets that don’t “tell the truth and play it down the middle.” 

After the balloon boy fiasco, one of the more pragmatic comments on Facebook referenced the streaker fad:  “Remember the streakers at 70s sporting events?  They stopped showing them on TV.  Guess what, no more streaking.” 

At a time when there is more information than ever – both relevant and irrelevant -  the kings of information have refused to curate, refused to edit, refused to do their jobs.  They don’t ask “is this a streaker or a story?”  Instead they are swept up in the wave of real time, alienated from those who would listen to their stories and completely vulnerable to a man with a child who thinks it will be easy to deceive them.

It is.


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