The oracle

April 4, 2010 / We don’t just want the information, we want to understand it. And we haven’t got all day.

[Morpheus, et al., waiting for the phone]
Image: Warner Bros.

A Pew study views news as inherently difficult to sell:

All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative.

Maybe so. This is a car crash model of consumption: people want immediate, “basic information” about catastrophic events and would be equally satisfied by driving by it as by reading about it online. Obviously, sometimes true. But there are other problems. Most news is just not reported well, or in equal measure, or with any sense of conviction, which gets to matters of competence, selection and trust. Baldur Bjarnason:

If there’s one thing I learnt over the last three years and the tremendous news coverage that Iceland has been getting it’s that mainstream media is incapable of writing even one news item without getting something substantially wrong… Mainstream news isn’t worth £2 a week or a year because it doesn’t have enough facts to qualify as news and is too boring to qualify as fiction.

Here the biggest problem stems from the commodification of news, but manifests in frustrated consumption: news supplied by the mainstream media companies lacks “voice”—that embodied synthesis of:

  1. authority,
  2. reliability,
  3. validity, and
  4. perspective

that comprise the necessary conditions of believing what is told to you and wanting to hear it.

The frame of reference is the blind spot. If you understand news as an elementary information product then its consumers will appear to be acting instrumentally, snacking it quickly, grabbing it at the lowest possible price, or walking away from it at the slightest barrier. News appears to be nothing more or less than fast food.

But if, instead, you view news consumption as the search for moments of assurance—as willful participation in acts of telling, delivered by a “subject supposed to know”—then any kind of voicelessness amounts to failure. Not taking a position is abandoning the process that gives the product its value.

The best news sources are the ones that succeed at being “supposed to know.” Having the basic facts is not enough. You have to convey that you know them, so that we are not just receiving facts from you, but we are, first and foremost, being assured by your knowledge of the things you tell us. Audio, video, text, paper, screen—doesn’t matter—as long as we sense the guiding hand.

We want to consult the oracle.

2 responses

  1. kris

    Lord, you’re clever.

    I think voice is important not only in terms of moments of assurance but in terms of a sense of ourselves as an audience. The sites I go to anything more than a basic account presume an audience who themselves understand the framing, relevance and implications of an issue (even when they don’t agree on points). This allows for a deeper analysis but also a sense of community.

    April 13th, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

  2. Adrian Cooke

    Hey Kris, are you saying that it’s only when the information source has voice that you get the sense of audience? That’s an interesting idea. I wonder what else reinforces that sense, and whether it depends on the medium.

    April 26th, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

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