Convergence in media is a process that succeeds in creating the perception of choice. Multiplying the strands of communication leads to a wealth of available information. It is now, with the advent of convergence, where the capacity to access information and news is obtainable to a wide audience. This leads to higher—perhaps unrealistic—expectations; journalists know readers possess tools to search the Internet for additional information. The push for accuracy is like never before. To be viable in the increasingly competitive information marketplace, the journalist must stay abreast of the capacity of a changing audience.
However, is the direction of constant information one that will promote an insightful citizenry?
The ability to take data from several sources has always been the mark of discerning thinkers. News is a major factor in promoting an informed and educated society. It is the reason our Bill of Rights affords us a freedom of the press separate from free speech and expression. As Epictetus wrote, “Only the educated are free.”
According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, news flows from several sources, allowing users to “pick and choose” simultaneously.
“As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our ‘intellectual technologies’—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies,” writes Nicholas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
In a 2008 survey of virtual library usage conducted by the University College London, the “Google generation” is showing an alarming lack of depth.
The use of the Internet is “a form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then ‘bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never returns.”
“…deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, ‘flicking’ behavior in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.”
During a speech in 2000, science journalist Laurie Garrett talked of what is missing in the flood of information through the modern media. Writing about health issues, Garrett has won Peabody and Polk awards, as well as the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism.
“What suffers in this atmosphere of immediacy is analysis,” Garrett says. “What suffers in this search for speed is depth. The wealthy world media is becoming increasingly simplistic, superficial and celebrity focused.”
It is certainly cause for concern over the degree of skimming while utilizing the Internet for academic research, although there may be a trend even more troubling for journalists.
If news for the “Google generation” exists simply for superficial examination, it suggests a degree of homophily, where Internet “surfers” only view information that falls in line with their existing worldviews. There are people who do not experience the Internet beyond a short list of “bookmarks.” The vast choice of the online world leaves some to restrict information to only that which appeals to their comfort zone.
The amount of information online can also lead to a sense of distraction. Many workplaces are restricting access to various entertainment sites. In a July 2, 2010 memo to Transportation Security Administration employees, websites with “controversial opinions” will be blocked on TSA computers. The TSA views the sites—such as “Gaming” and “Chat/Messaging”—as distracting and potential security risks.
Wired magazine editor Brendan Koerner would disagree with “distracting.” In the March 2010 edition, Koerner suggests that the small breaks offered by sites such as Facebook and Twitter can actually help productivity.
“Humans weren’t designed to maintain a constant focus on assigned tasks,” Koerner says. “We need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform—pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking. Musing about something else for a while can clear the way the mental detritus, letting us see an issue with fresh eyes, a process creativity researchers call incubation.”
In developing a voice for providing news for today’s audience, what is necessary is a mindfulness of the changing dynamic of the online audience. Online writing, concise and presented in easily digested “chunks” to viewers constantly scanning a story for points of entry, is a form appealing to the fragmented thought patterns of the “Google generation.”