Open letter to the news media…

February 11, 2010Jake DiMare

I have recently begun to feel disillusioned with the news media in the United States. I believe they spend a lot of time reporting on stories people don’t seem to care about while at the same time complaining that the news industry is falling apart and it is all the internet’s fault. I’d like to write an editorial propagating conspiracy theories about why the media seems to exist for the sole purpose of  generating fear by pushing headlines about non-issues like ‘The Swine Flu’ and car recalls. However, instead I will try to make a facts based observation of what is misaligned in today’s news…February 11th 2010…To propagate the theory that there are things the news media could do to improve their situation. Consider the following facts gathered between 9 and 9:30 AM today:
Here are the ten most popular topics in the United States today according to Google trends:
1. washington snow
2. valentines day ideas
3. schools closed
4. olympic games
5. my name is khan
6. iran nuclear
7. greece debt crisis
8. google buzz
9. eu summit
10. alec baldwin hospital
Here are the top ten things people in the USA are searching for on Google:
1. state of delaware state of emergency
2. wfaa school closings
3. alec baldwin hospital
4. debi nova
5. vickie stringer
6. candi holyfield
7. iran news
8. josh turner
9. sat scores
10. mothman
Finally, here are the top ten trending topics of conversation on Twitter, worldwide:
1. #nowplaying
2. #ohjustlikeme
3. #awkwardsituation
4. #petpeeve
6. Dallas
7. iPad
8. iranelection
9. Stop Twitting
10. Taylor Lautner
I believe this information paints a pretty accurate picture of what people are interested in. Certainly Google and Twitter are not used by the entire world, but they are definitely used by a massive and diverse subset of the global population.  Now consider what’s going on with CNN as of 9:30AM today:

  • The #1 Story on CNN’s RSS feed for the US news:    The Toyota recall.
  • The number of stories on CNN’s global homepage about the Toyota recall:  3!

Notice nobody is talking about or searching for information on the Toyota recall in the previous three sets of information?  Furthermore, more than half the things people are discussing and searching for today are NOT mentioned anywhere in the news. Do I believe the media has a responsibility to report news…Which by its very nature might be something the general public is not yet aware of…and therefore could not be discussing? Absolutely. But I also believe that a story should be reported on for an amount of time which is proportionate to the public’s interest and relative to the importance of the story.
I would like to point out I don’t accept the argument that CNN must decide what stories to lead with based on what people are clicking. This is because I have learned, after ten years of building web sites and assisting clients with decisions on information architecture, if you put something on the home page it will get clicked. The statistical difference between the number of clicks something on the homepage of a site and something on a subordinate page get are universally staggering.
The interesting thing is as I write this I am starting to feel a little sympathetic towards the people who decide what to report on. If there is one thing I have found to be a growing challenge in recent history it is figuring out how to cut through the massive amounts of information available. That and the overwhelming number of ways there are able to communicate with one another. As we all dove into Google Buzz yesterday my close friend Eric Johnson pointed out: “Why do I need another place to update my status”? (Which, by the way, is a source of news! )
So my questions for you are…
1. Should there be a relevance between what the news media is reporting on and what people express  interest in?
2. Do the users of Google and  Twitter represent a large enough and diverse enough subset of the population to consider their dialog a relevant leading indicator of general interest?
3. What other indicators could we consider to indicate the importance of information?
Interesting to note, there is a new online news media outlet called Global Post who’s headlines are much more aligned with world interests. They also sell a subscription based product where the subscribers literally decide what their global network of journalists report on. I think I’ll quit my bitching and sign up.

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