Perhaps Google Reader's Demise Will Help Us Read Articles, Not Just the Headline

By Commenter Woolcott on at

My job, believe it or not, is to watch TV (albeit news channels); read the papers and generally be a bit of a media junkie. I’m a huge media nerd; can quote back the names of major correspondents, editors, and tell you which Government ministers are less inclined to dodge questions in front of a camera. This is just one of the many pointless skills developed through watching 40 hours of news a week; but the main thing it has taught me, besides a healthy dose of cynicism, is just how to deal with the gout of the internet age -- media overload.

A big story breaks, and within about five minutes I will have alerts from Sky News, BBC News and Reuters all blipping on my phone. My inbox will start to clog up with further alert emails; my RSS feeds will start shuffling like a Vegas deck of cards and the badge alerts on my iPad will tick ever upwards. At first, this ever-connected feeling was liberating, but pretty soon it starts to feel more like a prison than the key to freedom of knowledge. That feeling is only doubled by the fact that it’s my job to look at these things.

What we used to learn through word of mouth; over the bar, or by checking the evening papers now instantaneously appears in our palms. We are better connected, but often worse informed, than ever before. The media cycle has become so distorted by this constant connection that we are forced to put up with a deluge of mediocre filler (a problem only exacerbated by the fact that the news cycle now runs 24, rather than four hours of the day), rather than real news. There’s a pretty clear deterioration happening in almost every area of the press; deadline on copy has become more important than the copy itself. Like any piece of writing, good journalism requires a bit of a gestation period; fact checking and tightening the flow of story doesn’t happen nearly as quickly as the news cycle, and the constant blipping and singing of smartphone alerts dictates.

I have to put up with a lot of this filler, and in the course of a 10 hour shift, I can see the same package on Pope Francis’ single lung (yes, really) at least 15 times. Eventually, you begin to phase the filler out. But the thing is, it’s hard to block that out and not miss the moment when real stories appear. The death of Google Reader (may she rest in peace) is testament to this -- people favour the quick hit of Twitter, with stories spewing forth amongst all sorts of other detritus, to links to long-form journalism. The overload is leading people to read only the headline, and that’s a dangerous path to tread.

Headlines are possibly the most readily manipulated aspect of any story. Wrap some quotation marks around something suitably sensationalist (here’s looking at you, Daily Wail), and people will tend to have that, rather than the actual reporting of facts stuck in their head. It’s far easier to be convincing, but wrong, in fewer words. It doesn’t give people a chance to work out the faults of your argument. So here’s my self-medicating approach to dealing with media overload.

Don’t turn off your alerts; don’t ignore the headlines outright, but every now and again, make sure that you read the story, rather than just perpetually glancing at headlines. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather know a few things well, than a lot of things superficially (or worse, just plain wrong).

People say journalism is a dying trade, but so’s being an informed consumer of journalism. Quick fixes always have their price, and the furore around the conduct of some journalists is testament to that -- so eschew snappy headlines in favour of real reporting. You might find yourself less likely to slam your phone down in disgust at the state of the world the next time your phone buzzes to life with some ‘news’ for you.

Alex is a law student, working as a media monitor, and living in London. When he's not complaining, he takes pictures of things, and can be found over at Flickr.

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