Tweet tweet tweet goes the Twitterverse. Blah blah blah go the talking heads. A suspect has been named. A dark-skinned man has been arrested. There are multiple suspects – and they look like frat boys! There’s a dragnet! Refresh. Stay tuned – back right after this…
Unspeakable trauma, again, enthralls the nation. This week, we all turned to Boston – witness to a tragic and terrible attack made during an annual celebration of life and liberty. Before this, we were shocked – and riveted – by events in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and beyond. By this point, audience and media both know the drill for these stories: immediate and ongoing updates are the currency of the moment. The public and the press, swept up in the same wave, all seemingly powerless. Surely, this routine is as unhealthy as it is predictable. Dan Gillmor – and others like Ariana Huffington – have the answer: slow news.
Conceptually inspired by slow food, the elite culinary trend, a slow news approach advocates for information production and consumption done at an arms-length with time for reflection. From the journalist’s point of view, stepping off the 24-hour news-cycle carousel is exceedingly appealing: a life-line for the humane treatment of reporters. For some, like Brian Lam – the former editor of Gizmodo and the founder of The Wirecutter – there might even be a viable living to be made. But for the audience? Expecting the mass audience to turn to slow news is as reasonable as expecting Chez Panisse to supplant McDonalds as a staple of the American experience.
For decades, scoops have driven journalism. The scoop wins eyeballs and those eyeballs can be monetized. The incentives are clear for the news business. At the same time, the audience wants the story now: breaking news provides a thrill of feeling engaged with the world at-large (while sitting at home) that sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton long ago called the “narcotizing dysfunction.” By staying informed, members of the audience feel like they are an active part of something. To be a part of something, you must be up-to-date. To be up-to-date, you can’t wait a beat and approach the news with a dose of skepticism. To do so is, by definition, to be disengaged.
In the 19th century, newspapers funded costly expeditions into Africa in return for one thing: telegraphed exclusives about the journeys. In England and America, audiences thrilled to each nugget from the jungles and beyond. The push for the tragedy scoop today is similar, though, to state the obvious, the speed of information is a bit faster. In our modern information environment, both sides of the communication equation are driven by the thrill of the chase. Seeking this rush – derived from the feeling of participation in the moment – keeps the audience glued to its screens. A calm and rational debate about the nuances of crowd control or intelligence work simply does not create a feeling of collective consciousness.
Like slow food, we already have slow news. A reader of Foreign Policy or The New Republic knows this. These media have websites and Twitter accounts – when the mass audience wants their measured, informed approach to the stories of the day, it can access it. But the mass audience is seeking something less intellectual and more primal when it turns to blow-by-blow coverage of media events. It’s seeking the immediate gut-level satisfaction that comes with each bite of a Big Mac. John King and his ilk give us the feeling of a connection in the moment – and for so many people, this is more satisfying than being correctly informed.