More than 20 years ago, Washington Post editorial writer Meg Greenfield warned people not to confuse information with knowledge. In this era we refer to as the Information Age, that’s provocative advice.
Specifically, here’s a bit of what she said in this June 26, 1989 Newsweek piece called, “Misled by the Facts”:
“There are all these names and all these political tags and odd bits of information that we string together and talk about without any more insight than you can put on graffiti …
“Our heads are stuffed full of snippets of lore that give us the false impression that we know something when we don’t. We are misled by our own information, knowing much more than we understand.”
And if you know much about the history of the Internet, you’ll remember that the Internet was not even commercialized (meaning everyone had access to it) until 1995, six years after this article appeared.
So if there was an information glut when Greenfield issued her warning, there is an information tsunami confronting us today when the Web is going full tilt.
All this, of course, addresses the question of whether we know more today (thanks to the Web) that we knew when all we had were the traditional mass media.
If you’re saying yes and basing your answer strictly on the amount of information available to us, Ms. Greenfield would say you are wrong. More information does not equal more knowledge.
There are at least three problems with making the argument that a massive amount of raw information leads to greater understanding and wisdom:
- The mere fact that all this information is out there on the Web does not – in any way, shape, or form – mean it is actually being accessed. Potential access does not equal sitting down and reading the stuff.
- The fact that much of the information is in raw, unedited form makes understanding that data difficult for many people who don’t have the frame of reference needed to grasp it and make connections. That’s what seasoned editors are for. We’re not talking lack of intelligence by readers; the point is simply that everyone cannot have a frame of reference about everything.
- The sources of this information tsunami are so many and varied that you find Wiki points made by experts standing next to other Wiki points made by complete idiots. In between are those who are passing along rumors they have heard for so long that they assume them to be true. If you’re a fan of John Wayne westerns, you may remember a classic line from, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” where a newspaper editor says toward the end, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Voila: Welcome to Wikipedia.
A lot of young people today, like some in my university classes, have trouble distinguishing among truth, fiction, and rumors on the Internet. Sources don’t really seem to matter to them, as long as it’s in written form on the Web. Clearly, there is a problem here.
It has often reminded me of those advertising logos you see (indeed there is a whole franchise of stores under this name) that say, “As Seen on TV.” The assumption is that – hey!—since it’s on TV, it must be true. Well, to many young people, if it’s on the Internet it must be true. Questions of source credibility don’t enter in much.
A world of difference
The Web is bringing us the world in so many wonderful ways. But we would do well to remember that all views of that world are not created equal.
Clearly, as is evidenced by the fact our country is involved now in three military actions in three different countries, we don’t really understand that world much better than before.
My first newspaper job was right here with The Oklahoman (then The Daily Oklahoman) back around 1970. It was a transition time for the industry, which was going from “hot-type” to the “offset” printing process.
Because of that, reporters and editors were saying goodbye to their manual typewriters as technology had ushered in electric typewriters in the form of IBM Selectrics. These machines literally started the ball rolling in connecting the newsroom to the offset printing process.
The magic typing ball
These Selectrics replaced the individual striking keys with the typing ball that was calibrated to put the right letter on the page as you hit the corresponding key. You could change typefaces simply by changing the typing ball, and you could code the copy to be read automatically by an optical character reader (OCR) machine.
Someone would simply feed the typed sheets into the OCR machine, and out would come the typeset copy, formatted for your newspaper and ready to be pasted onto the newspaper page that would be photographed and magically converted to a thin metal plate. This was placed like a saddle on the printing press. The press was started and voila! A newspaper would emerge on the other end.
What’s this? Change?
This was the first significant change to occur in the way newspapers were produced since the early 19th Century, and it was the first stage of putting composing-room functions into newsroom hands. It also produced a great deal of angst among reporters. Ironically, those professionals who are always writing about changes in society have traditionally been some of the most resistant to change in the way they do their job.
For them, technology in the newsroom means change, and change means a break with tradition, and the traditions of journalism are as endearing to reporters as motherhood, baseball, and apple pie.
I clearly recall reporters steadfastly refusing to give up their Royal manuals, even as they were ordered by editors to replace them with the new Selectrics. In some cases, they would actually hide those relics, sneak off and use them instead of the shiny new machines that were placed on their
desks. It took more than a year for some die-hards to realize copy produced on manuals wouldn’t work in the new technological system.
Once they got used to the Selectrics, however, they realized this new delivery system of news was easier (for the most part), let them have later deadlines (which all reporters crave) and – most importantly – this technology did not affect content.
The reality of change
This is the new reality for journalists today, as we have long-since crossed the threshold of computers replacing electric typewriters and Web editions of newspapers challenging the print product for supremacy with readers.
And it doesn’t stop there as I recently heard a Dallas editor talking about his newspaper past Web-first to Twitter-first.
The new delivery system of Web-first media does not have to affect news content, and it is that content that is so important to society.
The new generation of journalists who have come into the newspaper and television news industry over the past decade now take this as a given: the Web is here to stay, and more people are getting their information from it than from traditional newspapers or even 30-minute TV newscasts.
That said, newspapers and television news have to play first to the Web and then to their traditional delivery systems of printed papers and nightly newscasts. The change is occurring at a more rapid pace with newspapers than TV, although the latter industry is catching on fast to the new reality.
OK, I get it now
While this change is – at times – heartbreaking for those professionals who have always considered themselves first to be newspaper journalists or television journalists rather than information providers, it is now becoming second nature to most in the business.
Perhaps it is a good thing, as well, because journalists can now focus squarely on content. That doesn’t mean they all do, however, as many are getting distracted by the lights, colors, and bells of software applications.
All journalists, however, realize the means of producing and delivering that content will continue to evolve. The traditions of producing the news are about as trustworthy for journalists as the shifting sands on a beach.
The old grains of sand will be replaced by new ones tomorrow. Yet the beach itself remains and continues to draw customers.