Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Good night, Irene

This just in! Hurricane Irene is trending on Twitter!

That was the notable nut graph (as journalists used to call it) of a news story today on the approach of the “monstrous” Irene to the U.S. mainland. The nut graph, for those of you who weren’t around when newspapers were primary news sources, is the paragraph – usually about the third or fourth, but sometimes much farther down – that essentially tells you why you’re reading the story.

There can be more than one nut graph, and in this case the notation about Irene's Twitter trending was actually pretty far down. But when you got to it, you knew: Beyond the actual possibility of a multibillion dollar natural disaster, complete with loss of life, what mattered was that people thought it mattered, and so, tweeted.

Look for the nut graph next time you’re scanning a news item. Be forewarned that today it sometimes gets left out altogether, so you don’t even know that the reason you should care about some random board vote is that the board had previously voted to award a contract to a child molester who had contributed to the board president’s campaign, etc. Sometimes, as was the case with Irene, the actual nut graph is more or less buried.

Why, you might ask, would you need a reporter to tell you why you're reading a story? Because otherwise the board vote might seem inconsequential, and you would not be inclined to read on. With most any news item, after you get past the lead paragraph, which is designed to get your attention, and a couple of follow-up paragraphs, which kind of make the lead make sense (the beginnings of the who, what, where, when and why), you will, presumably, wonder: Why should I read further? Why do I care to know more? At which point the reporter answers the question: Here is why. And the reason you need to know about hurricane Irene’s approach is not so much because it poses a physical threat, though there is that (Be frightened! Tweet about it!) but precisely because it’s trending. That's where we are now.

Awareness of reader (or viewer) interest is at the heart journalism, but the notion – and its practical applications – have been perverted over time, so that it’s now like some weird hybrid of voyeurism and autoeroticism. For this, I find it convenient to blame the 24-hour cable news cycle. Short on actual news to fill the hours, cable news producers began to find new ways of framing the story, and of fabricating the significance thereof. Soon “what you think” became enough to carry a story. And from there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to “what we think” being enough to carry a story. That’s how you end up with the news covering the news. Who knows better how to find its own g-spot, after all? And you get to watch!

Hence, today’s article, in which hurricane Irene is validated by “trending on Twitter.” Not to get all Andy Rooney about it, because immediate access to news, via Twitter or any other mechanism, is pretty amazing, and at times can be extremely useful. The question is, what messages are we receiving and sending out? If we have an opportunity to tell the world about something, is it going to be that our cat is sick (Facebook), or that we're interested in tweeting about what you're tweeting about (Yahoo! News rotator)?

Sadly, the revealing nut graph about Irene's twits wasn’t found on a news item carried by the self-absorbed and shameless Fox News network, or the juvenile Yahoo! News, but on venerable old AP, which is apparently trying to seem cool when it’s way too old for those pants, and anyway the pants suuck, duude.

This sort of needy come-on, this “Hey, have we met? I just heard this really interesting story!” is basic to journalism. It's what gave the world those newsboys in knee socks on the corner shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” But when how you perceive the story becomes an important component – perhaps the most important part -- of the actual story, it not only corrupts the news process, it trivializes everything. When you care about something because you are perceived to care, and because you perceive that others perceive that others care, and when that is the nut graph... well, that’s a trend worth noting.

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