The Case for Slow Journalism: When to Unplug from the Endless News Cycle

Often when I see people in my social media feed criticizing “the media,” they are unfairly blaming journalists for how the social media ecosystem misuses journalism.

Here’s an example from a post by someone arguing that CNN is being unfairly biased against Bernie Sanders. The complaint is that CNN criticizes Sanders for making a claim that a different CNN story seems to support.

If you already believe that CNN is biased against Bernie Sanders, or if you already believe CNN is untrustworthy, then my critique of this meme isn’t going to change your mind.

But if you’re open-minded, and interested in how one meme falsely tries to present “the media” as biased, my analysis might be of interest.

At first glance, it looks like CNN is inconsistent, attacking Sanders for making claim a different CNN article supports.

On closer inspection, these two items aren’t contradictory.

The first item rejects Sanders’s claim that US spends twice as much “as any other country in the world.” The second item reports that the US spends twice as much “as its peers.”

Semantically, it’s easy to understand that “Bill runs twice as fast as any other person in the world” might be false even if “Bill runs twice as fast as the average person at his school” is true (especially if, for instance, Bill is home-schooled and his siblings are seven and four.)

In the item on the left, CNN is saying a claim Sanders makes comparing the US “to any other country in the world” is false, and in the item on the right, CNN is saying that a completely different statement comparing the US to other developed nations is true.

Sanders continues to make the misleading “twice as much on health care” claim, and his supporters continue to share the “CNN is biased against Sanders” meme.

Before I jump into a fray online, I have an internal checklist.

  • “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
    When my kids were young, I taught them to as these questions before they spoke, noting that sometimes we tell white lies that are kind and necessary, but not true; and sometimes if something is true and necessary, we should speak as kindly as possible, without compromising truth or necessity.
  • Is it current?
    It might be old news, especially if it’s being shared without a date but with a relative time identifier such “last weekend.” (This is very common in posts of the variety “Why isn’t the media covering this story,” when the story is true but happened years ago, and there was plenty of coverage of the story at the time.)
  • Is the story so current it’s still unfolding?
    If it’s breaking news, only parts of the story will be out yet. Witnesses will post details on social media that cops won’t confirm while they’re still investigating, and liars and hoaxers and genuinely confused people will make and share and confirm competing claims.
  • What have journalists already said about it?
    I check news.google.com, which aggregates thousands of news cites from around the world. If the most visible coverage is from fringe sites (like Breitbart from the right or The Daily Kos from the left) and nobody from CNN or The Guardian (neutral-left) or the Christian Science Monitor (neutral-right) is covering it, it’s probably not really a thing.
  • Is it news? Does it teach me something I didn’t already know, and therefore gave me a reason to change what I think about a topic; or, does it so perfectly illustrate my pre-existing core beliefs (how bad “the other side” is or how praiseworthy “my side” is) that sharing it won’t actually affect the status quo in any meaningful way?
  • Am I feeding the trolls? Some people get their kicks parking in the comment sections of their online contacts, and picking fights with anyone who dares to disagree with them. They’ll take on the persona of someone who just wants a civil conversation, they’ll say “prove me wrong,” or “what, exactly do you mean by [term],” they’ll copy-paste stock arguments they’ve already posted to other discussion threads, and they’ll sit back and watch everyone else get worked up.
  • Would my speaking here improve upon the silence? You don’t owe anyone a debate — especially a troll. For the benefit of those who are following your conversation out of a genuine desire to learn, it might be better to link to a credible source (not just a random person who shares your biases; I mean a source of fact-checked, non-political, bi-partisan expertise) and then move on with life.

With that context, here’s a Washington Post article reflecting on the rampant conspiracy theories that spread, with help from the White House, as news about the death of billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein spread:

What we have here is an argument for what seems impossible in 2019: slow journalism.

That’s not a joke, or an unwitting oxymoron: It’s a real thing, modeled after the 30-year-old “slow food” movement.

“We need to decide for ourselves what so-called news is worth our while, not just allow ourselves to be subjected to an endless barrage of unfiltered media assaults,” wrote Peter Laufer, a University of Oregon professor and author of “Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer.”

[…]

Laufer’s book (published in ancient times: 2011) advises such solid ideas as: “Trust accuracy over time,” “Know your sources,” and “Don’t become a news junkie.”

The multitude of worthy news-literacy efforts that have grown in recent years are preaching the same gospel: In journalism, speed kills. Be skeptical. Don’t spread shaky information. Find reputable news sources; compare and contrast what they are reporting. –Margaret Sullivan, “The Twitter-fed disaster over Epstein’s death demands a solution: Slow news” (Washington Post)