by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Actor Kevin Bacon has kindly done a commercial bit for the beleaguered Public Broadcasting System. According to the congenial Bacon, his favorite, never-miss-it PBS presentation is the venerable Antiques Roadshow. He particularly loves the people who come to the show clutching their whatchamacallits, apparently happy and excited no matter what the estimated value of their dinguses.
The “Feedback Booth” at the end of each program seems the best evidence for the participants’ good naturedness. These are the people whose gizmos weren’t interesting enough to earn them a spot on the show with an expert evaluator. Disappointment never seems to dim their enjoyment of the experience, however, or their appreciation of the show. Often with self-deprecating humor, they point to some oddly shaped, weirdly colored object that they had hoped would buy them a new house, or at least a good dinner, and tell the tale of worthlessness. But they almost always conclude by thanking the show for a wonderful time.
Bacon is right. The people who come to this show seem so charmingly real and refreshingly good that they make watching the show an invigorating experience. It restores one’s faith in the common man, almost like watching a Frank Capra movie. Wouldn’t this be a wonderful world if everyone were like the people who come to the Antiques Roadshow? Not a sophisticate in sight, but not a person you wouldn’t trust to hold your purse while you went outside to get something bulky out of your car trunk.
Why all this rhapsodizing about the Antiques Roadshow? Well, I just finished editing Nancy Herther’s article in this month’s issue on internet news gathering. She quotes from a Harris poll on public opinion about President Barack Obama. Talk about discouraging! Regardless of whether you voted for him or plan to vote for him again, the percentages of responses to rather nasty charges against Obama were depressing. Some charges were contradictory. (How can a Wall Street stooge be a supporter of terrorism? Did some respondents get “Obama” confused with “Osama”?) How can a nation with people so benign as the collectible collectors of PBS contain such a large portion of people with such ugly views of the nation’s political life?
And then there’s the issue of knowledgeability, which we information professionals put at the top of our list of concerns. Herther’s article mentions that many people now tap as many as four regular news sources on a regular basis. But how do they choose those sources? What reliance do they place upon them? How critical is their judgment of those news sources?
With the massive proliferation of news sources provided by the internet and its web, the decision on what to read becomes more and more critical. Information overload pushes people to make decisions based at least in part on comfort factors. Does the source feel familiar? Does it confirm your expectations or suspicions? Does it lead you to actions or inactions that you kind of planned to do — or not do — anyway?
But what is the cumulative effect of allowing comfort factors to shape the design of news gathering? It can lead individuals and groups into rolling their own realities, creating news cocoons of their own making. With the rise of the social web from blogs to social networks, the self-selected reality can even be borrowed from the gleanings of others. And I do mean gleanings. Herther’s article points out another fact. Though claims have often been made that blogs and other user-generated content are the first to find the news, actual studies show that these sources usually get their news from established mainstream news media. So the nonmainstream news sources may simply be the first to have an opinion on a news story, to put it in a particular context, if only a speculative one.
More rolled reality rolling along?
Fortunately, Herther’s article gives a list of sites that try to verify internet rumors. But it’s not enough merely to check on absolute falsehoods, on hoaxes for example. Even if some story is true, what does it mean? What is the context? How do different stakeholders in an event evaluate the situation?
Many people know how to do some kind of research on an issue of concern to them. They know how to check for a good price on a product or service they want to buy. Looking for answers successfully is one of the great gifts technology has given to all these days. But news gathering is different. For one thing, it involves looking for the unknown, for what has not yet even occurred. In a way, it’s not looking for answers; it’s looking for questions. The inevitable uncertainties can make reaching out for comforting sources that fulfill one’s expectations, even negative expectations, very seductive. But the siren call can lead one astray and away from the path toward truth.
Caveat, searcher, caveat!