Thursday, June 25, 2009

"But how will we know what to believe?"

There are entirely too many one-liners in Ellen Goodman's latest Washington Post column, which has now been reproduced on Truthdig. They come not only from Goodman herself ("Twittering is just frittering.") but from her designated spokesperson for the "digital perspective," John Palfrey ("Bullets are more powerful than bytes."). Nevertheless, the message in this column is strong enough to rise above any "rhetorical noise," because it recognizes that "journalism in the Twitter era" (the title of Goodman's column) has to contend with a new "fog of war." This metaphor used to refer to the chaos of battle itself, its distorting influences on our basic capacities for perception, and the impact of those distortions on our abilities to make effective decisions. The new metaphor now refers to data sources, regardless of whether or not they may be distorted by that chaos of battle; the metaphor has become, as Goodman put it, a "downpour of texts and tweets." Within that downpour, it is as difficult to distinguish signal from noise at it was under the old metaphor to distinguish friend from foe.

Goodman uses this new metaphor to build a strong case that we need the disciplines of traditional journalism more than ever. More specifically, the extraction of signal from noise is a matter of validation, vetting, and editing. From Goodman's point of view, the current crisis in journalism comes down to the loss of valuable resources:

I don’t have to remind readers of newspaper woes, but in this imploding world, who will do the job of the mainstream media?

This is an indisputable point. However, if we are going to address questions of resources, we need to remember that time is as significant a resource as manpower. Goodman first really came to my attention a little over two years ago, when she wrote a column entitled "The Benefits of Slow Journalism." Even before Twitter was a gleam in some venture capitalist's eye, she realized that the Internet was more about speed than about reflection. Looking back on both that column and my "reflection" on it, I realize that those practices she advocated in her "post-Twitter" column, validation, vetting, and editing, are all highly reflective activities. If you are going to try to perform them at "Internet speed" (the primary target of Goodman's earlier column), you might as well not perform them at all.

For Goodman, the fundamental question is the one I incorporated in my title: "how will we know what to believe?" Pessimist that I am, however, I wonder if the real question is a darker one: Do we care whether or not we know what to believe? Instant gratification does not necessarily require validity as a prerequisite. It just has to provide the "buzz" of being right there "in the moment" when (to choose a poignant example-of-the-moment) a cell phone captured the shooting death of Neda Agha Soltan on video. Without any subsequent reflection, however, that buzz quickly deteriorates into trivialization; and those of us desperate to avoid such trivialization find ourselves in the same boat as Abraham Lincoln, asking questions about those who may have died in vain. I thus worry that Goodman's latest column may be that proverbial tree falling in a forest where no one can hear it. It definitely made a sound worth hearing; but, if that sound has not been perceived by those with the power to do something about it, it might as well not have been made at all.

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