Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sources for the news

Most people who follow the news do so through TV news. Radio news is second, with text news coming in a solid third. To me, this is entirely backwards.

Text news puts me in control of what I read. I can easily skim articles and decide which ones to read, and at what level of detail. Some articles only need reading the headline, some skimming the first few paragraphs, some reading the entire article, some even inspire me to follow links or look things up to read more, and there are whole sections I skip outright. If I missed something I can easily go back and reread it or refer to it.

Radio loses all of this. If I miss something, I can't rewind to it. And I get no choice at all in how much detail I get on which stories. Generally speaking, every single story they'll cover, they'll either give me too much or too little. The odds of them giving me exactly as much as I want are very low. In exchange for that, I get one marked advantage. Text requires me to be paying attention; I can't be doing something else at the same time. Radio lets me catch the news while doing something else that occupies my hands or eyes, but not my thoughts. Like driving, eating, washing, dressing. This is handy, but it's not enough to outweigh the disadvantage for me.

Of course, there's also a difference of content. Radio news doesn't have to just be someone reading the text news in a flat monotone. This factor is probably worth more to other people than to me, since my tone-of-voice-deafness reduces the impact to me. But even I can see times where hearing someone speaking is a notably different experience. While I don't find this outweighs the benefits of text, I can at least understand people who feel it does, and I can even imagine specific stories I'd choose in audio if the choice were simple.

But TV news seems like the worst of both worlds. There's all the lack of control that radio has: most articles are either too much or too little detail. Even worse, generally, since TV news tends to almost universally do a worse job at choosing which stories to cover in detail. I can learn more reading the headlines only than I can watching TV news, and in a fraction of the time. Plus TV demands almost as much of my attention as text. I could maybe watch TV news while eating, though at the cost of missing some of the video (I do need to look at the food now and then). Possibly while exercising, depending on the exercises I was doing. Maybe even while washing, if I had a TV in the bathroom (sounds absurd, but some people do!). But I sure couldn't be watching TV while driving.

So what does TV have to offer to make up for all that? Obviously, video content. However, when I look at TV news, it is virtually always the case that the video content provided is not anything that informs or educates me better than text did. It's virtually always something whose purpose is to engross or entertain. Don't get me wrong: TV news could use video's capabilities to provide a much more educational or informative experience in a number of areas, it just does not do so, save occasionally by accident.

So while TV news squanders its one possibly compelling advantage, leaving itself with nothing but disadvantages to anyone who is there to learn and become informed, let alone to do so in a more efficient way, even when watching the news), the convergence of media afforded by the Internet gradually provides text with all the advantages of the other formats without their disadvantages, as it integrates audio and video into the under-your-control experience of text news.

For the purpose of educating and informing people about what's going on in the world, TV news grows gradually more inferior, and yet it will remain triumphant for a long time. That's because that's not really its purpose. It's primarily geared to people who want an experience. Actually educating or informing them is entirely beside the point.


litlfrog said...

I find internet news far superior as well. My only real concern with online news is that I'm not sure how journalists and institutions can make money by providing news online, and they have little incentive do so otherwise. Maybe Yahoo news can now support itself through ads; I don't know. For the most part, I see news stories provided online by traditional outlets whose main revenue source is advertising with big-city newspapers, high-powered radio stations, and large TV markets.

I'm partial to radio news mostly through years of use. I used to listen on my commute or at work. It was more an efficient use of time than anything.

Rhetrx, from Femrel said...

Some radio content, particularly public radio broadcasts, are parsed into smaller segments for online consumption. So that way you could still pick and choose, rewind, etc, as you wished...