Have our expectations of instantaneous results undermined the Democratic process? Maybe, but this has been a long time coming.
This demand for instant results — and the scorn likely to be expressed when states such as California don’t deliver — is a feature of our age of mobile, digital journalism, but the unquenchable drive for updates was an inherited, rather than a new, phenomenon.
Technological advances in the 20th century — radio, television and the Internet — have fueled a demand for information that has made journalism more cutthroat and competitive while also creating an on-demand and personalized form of civic engagement. But sometimes that thirst for technology and its innovations has come at the expense of actual transparency and more considered analysis.
In the first decades of the 20th century, radio transformed the relationship between journalism’s audiences and its producers, increasing expectations for immediate information. Before radio and its parent-technology, the telegraph, news could only move as fast as you could physically carry it.
But in the decades after the Civil War, American journalists and their editors aggressively experimented with technology such as the telegraph and the radio in the era of sensational, action-packed yellow journalism. This style had its heyday roughly from the late 1880s through the early 20th century. In the face of fierce competition for readers, and daily circulations in urban areas running into the hundreds of thousands (and in some cases millions) of copies sold, speed mattered.
Headlines would proclaim that a story had been obtained by wireless transmission or via undersea cables, ferried by air-delivered postal mail or driven at breakneck speed just in time for deadlines. Immediacy was a way to showcase a news organization’s reporting prowess.
During the 1920s and 1930s, radio became a sometimes competitor to print. Conservative editors resented how the medium gave presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt the ability to bypass them and go directly to the people. But some newspapers also capitalized on the opportunity presented by radio, buying and developing their own stations to extend their newspaper operations. This helped bring in more profits and would later help foster innovations such as mobile newsrooms and remote reporting tools. Some newspapers even attempted customized, faxed news to compete with the immediacy of radio in ways that were ahead of their time.
But this also placed even more value on speed in the newsroom. Reporters were expected to file and update stories throughout the day. Their readers could and did expect new editions, sometimes down to the hour. So cutthroat was the battle to be first that journalists would resort to tricks such as tying up phones so that their competitors couldn’t use them (usually by hacking them so they wouldn’t work until they were fixed, paying people to read long passages from books to the operator) or eavesdropping on sources, to get the all-important scoop on a rival.
Television brought even more intimacy and immediacy as Americans visually experienced major news events — like the coverage of JFK’s assassination and civil rights protests — in their living rooms. Reporters such as Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite relied on TV technology to cover contentious events such as the 1968 Democrat National Convention in Chicago (in which Rather was famously accosted). The new technology brought stunning images into American homes and helped Americans to better understand the tumultuous decade. Images of bloodied American boys lifting their dying comrades into helicopters, bombed-out churches, police dogs attacking protesters and, more hopefully, the broadcast of the July 1969 Apollo moon landing — all of these live images were burned deeply into the collective American psyche.
These images dashed any debate about television’s capacity for dishing out reporting of the same quality as radio. By the time cable news debuted in 1980, people could witness even more events in real time from home. Rather than stripping away substance, television — at least initially — connected Americans to the news in a way prior technologies had not.
The rise of computer technology, however, brought an unexpected curveball. It again hastened the immediacy with which Americans received news. But it also fulfilled the prediction by journalist-turned-RAND researcher Ben H. Bagdikian that newsroom computerization would send customized news alerts to every American’s home, and this has done serious damage in a way earlier technologies have not.
While Bagdikian surmised that a highly tailored information diet would be good for Americans, he has been proved wrong. From disinformation to the spreading of hateful ideas, having your own special cocoon of news has been bad for civic discourse. And the rise of cable news with ideologically driven channels and nonstop pundit chatter has left Americans less informed and with distorted views of their political opponents. The Internet has only reinforced these issues.
Furthermore, the rise of digital technology stripped away the print advertising base that had funded journalism in the 20th century. The result has been a dramatic drop in the number of journalists, and news sources, especially locally based ones.
Diverse, locally based news organizations, invested in their communities, would be far better for an informed polity. But the very practices of news, such as remote broadcasting, incentivize corporate consolidation, which allows companies to horizontally and vertically integrate. While this saves money, it also produces a bottom line, profit-driven mentality that is bad for journalism.
Cable news and online news have also introduced a new revenue model of microtargeting, with ads personalized down to the Zip code and beyond to earn a few more tenths of a cent off eyeball time and click-throughs, with alarming consequences.
While this model has helped journalism to survive, it has not prevented a major contraction in the actual staff and operations of newsrooms. It’s expensive to hire and retain fact-checking, fact-hunting reporters and editors. Some of the money that was spent on employees in past eras is not being spent at all, to stabilize profit margins. There are noted exceptions, of course, especially at the leading newspapers, but this trend is worrisome for what it means for informing Americans about the world around them, especially at the local and state levels.
Insomuch as companies invest in their news operations, the money flows into digital journalism, designed to bring news to the masses even more quickly, sometimes at the expense of accuracy and often at the expense of context or nuance.
For well over a century, technology has reshaped journalism practices and our demands as consumers and voters. Today, we expect election results instantaneously, and then expect commentators to offer immediate and unambiguous takes, primarily driven by partisanship or ideology. But the demands for speed often crowd out accuracy and understanding in ways that are detrimental to an informed populace as we select the next president.
Speed is not the solution. What we need now is thoughtful, unifying, perhaps slower news in our communities and our feeds. Only then can we actually do the messy work of governing ourselves as citizens.