Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload
By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2010, 203 pages
Review by Curt Prendergast
CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, Yahoo News, Google News, your local newspaper, the blogosphere, the Huffington Post, Politico.com, Slate.com, (and the Sonoran Chronicle, of course). The list of news outlets seems endless.
Gone are the days of Walter Cronkite, the Big Three news networks, and your local paper. In the absence of a few trusted news outlets, the public now must sift through an “information overload.” Until fairly recently, journalists were the “gatekeepers,” the ones who decided if something was newsworthy. Journalists now “stand sentinel at a gate with no fence surrounding it.”
So how do you know who to trust and which news accounts to believe? This question is the basis of the most recent book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of the indispensable The Elements of Journalism.
The authors argue that there is a need for a “next journalism.” They begin their argument by pointing out that this is not the first time that a “disruptive technology,” such as the Internet, has radically changed how the public learns about the world. Cave drawings, the written word, the printing press, the telegraph, radio, television, and newspapers each revolutionized how people experienced the world outside of their daily lives.
So what is the big deal with the current news revolution? “The most fundamental change is that more of the responsibility for knowing what is true and what is not now rests with each of us as individuals.” As news consumers struggle with this responsibility, what is at stake is nothing short of “the future of truth.”
The authors offer five steps the news consumer can take to evaluate the news. The first step is to identify what type of content they are encountering; the second is to identify whether the account is complete; the third is to assess the sources used; the fourth is to assess the evidence presented; the final step is to ask whether the account contains the news the public needs. Each of these steps is illustrated with examples and an insider’s view of journalism. With their combined 80 years of experience as journalists, these guys know what they are talking about.
In addition to the overwhelming number of news outlets, there is another, more subtle, problem in journalism today. What looks like a trustworthy account may be the product of a partisan organization or a special-interest group.
The authors examine two news forms that are becoming more prevalent: the “journalism of assertion” and the “journalism of affirmation.” The former is simply stating a point without any evidence. Watch cable news for more than a minute and you will probably see an example of this. The latter is the practice of using sources that agree with the viewpoint of the reporter or news organization. Again, just turn on your television and you’ll see it. Chances are, if you agree completely with what you are reading or watching you are not getting the whole story.
The authors argue that these forms should be rejected in favor of a “journalism of verification,” in which the reporter takes an honest and open-minded view of the issue in question and checks everything with independent sources. This will lead both the reporter and the news consumer to a state of “skeptical knowing.”
For all the valuable tips provided in the book, there is one that the authors should add to their list: copy editing. The book contains numerous typographical errors that distract the reader from the message. Most journalism professors would applaud the effort, but give the authors an automatic F. Still, this book will be extraordinarily useful both for the average news consumer and for reporters trying to make their way in the changing journalism landscape.