Understanding news consumption and production can be like understanding the air we breathe

A careful, systematic look at the way you encounter news might just dramatically change your understanding of the genre. Here are some observations about creating and consuming news in our current information ecosystem.

Creating News

News is not one size fits all, and news methodology can’t be one size fits all. This is probably a well known fact to people with more of a journalism background, but it is often overlooked by people who are newer to the field. Here are a few points that stem from differences:

– Social media can be a great source for information about breaking events that have a critical base of witnesses with internet access.

– Social media is no substitute for news that has very few witnesses with privileged access to information.

– The core job of newsmakers is to keep the public informed about unfolding events. Oftentimes newsmakers are as invisible to their audiences as the people who develop dictionaries are. The audience assumes that the major events they see covered are the objectively most-major events, often without any understanding of the curation involved. Newsmakers provide a vital public service and have a moral obligation to the public, but that obligation is far from straight forward.

– News consumers may choose to engage most deeply in the topics they are most interested in, but that doesn’t invalidate a basic desire to know what’s going on in the world. This is why I like to advocate for eye tracking as an engagement metric- the current tracking metrics don’t reflect the most basic function of the news media.

 

Consuming News

News exposure is seamlessly integrated into our daily experiences. As a child, I would watch multiple newscasts with my mom, and we would both scan the newspapers regularly. As a new parent, I visited multiple websites to collect news from different perspectives and regularly watched multiple newscasts- this seemed like an essential tie between the small world of new parenthood and the larger world outside my door. But these days I work long hours and rarely catch newscasts or have time to visit multiple news sites. Someone recently asked me which news outlets I follow, and I was surprised that the answer didn’t come very readily to me. I’ve been making a careful effort to observe my contact with news stories, outlets and journalists, and I highly recommend this exercise to anyone interested in understanding or measuring media use.

Here is some of what I’ve observed:

– Twitter is the first platform I think of when I think of news. I think of it as my own curated stream of news amidst the wider raging river of information flow. But when it comes to news stories in particular, I often hear about them not because I seek them out or curate them but because my streams are based on people who have a variety of interests. I hear about emerging news because people go off-topic in  their Twitter streams, not because I seek it out. I often value this dynamic as a kind of filter of its own, because major events enter my stream from a variety of perspectives, but the majority of news does not.

– Re: Interest-based streams- I mostly follow researchers on Twitter. As a result, I can follow conferences as they happen or read interesting articles as they come out. Is this news? What makes it news?

– Platforms morph based on the way people use them. See @clintonyates Twitter feed for an example of a journalist using Twitter to tell resonant stories in a unique way that defies traditional uses of the platform.

– Re: Instagram- I love to follow Instagrammers because I really love photography. Some of the instagrammers I follow are photojournalists. This is an area of news coverage that is rarely considered in depth. And sometimes I wonder whether these pictures are only news if they contain, and I read, captions explaining their context and importance?

– Facebook is often discussed as a news source, but it is very important when discussing Facebook as a news source to consider the social context of information. I will share news from news sources only if I think it is something I can share without harming valued personal relationships with people across many ideological spectra and backgrounds. That said, some of my friends will regularly share the pieces that I choose not to. When I see those articles from these friends I will put the articles in the context of what I’ve seen from those people in the past, my patterns with them in regards on the topic, and my social patterns with them in general.

– It is important to recognize that news items on Facebook can come from news sources, interest groups or pages, interested people, or simply from Facebook. The source interacts with the platform to create the stimulus.

– Re: other fora- There are many more news sources that I follow to varying degrees. I receive research updates and daily briefings from Pew and Nielsen, which I read with varying frequency (the only one I read every day is the Daily Briefing from the Pew Journalism Project.) I also receive e-mails from research and technical lists, lists about STEM education, community lists, blog notifications and emails from LinkedIn. I read the Sunday paper, and weekly updates from my employer, and I regularly hear and participate in discussions in my workplace and outside of it. Each of these are potential news sources that may bring in other news sources.

– These sources listed together may appear to amount to a critical mass of time, but I was not aware of that critical mass until I stopped to observe it. Our choices and actions regarding media consumption are as unconscious as many other choices I make with my time.

All of this is to say that news is as seamlessly integrated into my environment as the air I breathe, and it stems from sources of all kinds. Every story has a different way of intersecting with and co creating my own. Whereas news media has a particularly strong history of top down and one way dissemination, it is much more ubiquitous, multi-directional and part of our ecosystem now than ever before. We are consumers and participants in very different ways, and understanding these is a key to understanding and developing tools for news in the future.

 

* A side note re: pay to read. My advice to news outlets is to find a way to integrate pre-existing online funding resources (like Amazon, paypal, etc.) in a collective or semi-standardized way, so that people don’t have to provide financial information to anyone new, and so that people can pay small fees (e.g. 25 cents for a long-read or something that required a good deal of expense to produce, 5 or ten cents for smaller or shorter pieces) with a single click and pay as they go to read around a variety of sources.

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