Systemic vs. Episodic News Consumption

In my editing days I would often get into conflicts with one of my managing editors over the importance of special projects. He had reached a point in his career where advancement was going to be determined by the number of awards his staff won, so Big Special Sunday projects were important to him. Me, I thought some good came of them but was much more interested in – and dedicated to – solid daily coverage. It was my belief that when the renewal notice showed up in the mail the average reader was going to think about whether that day’s paper was worth renewing for, not whether that huge project two Sunday’s ago was worth the quarterly check

There’s some people out there who are starting to see differences in systemic (or regular) coverage of events in comparison to episodic (or highlight-oriented) coverage.

I stopped subscribing to my local paper some time ago but still read it daily online. And, I admit, since I no longer have the comics to entertain myself with, the comments have filled that void. In those comments I see this systemic vs. episodic issue on a regular basis. There are regular commenters (of the crazy and not-crazy variety) who appear to understand the issues in our community. And then there are those who really have no idea how things link together because they are only picking up bits of information.

Matt Thompson, from the above link:

Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue. And we live with it ’cause it sort of works. Eventually you hear enough buzzwords like “single-payer” and “public option” and you start to feel like you can play along.

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

It turns out that in order for information about things like the public option and budget reconciliation to be useful to you, you need a certain amount of systemic knowledge to be able to parse it. You need an intellectual framework for understanding health care reform before the episodic headlines relating to health care reform make any sense.

One of Thompson’s partners in an upcoming panel is Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, and he’s written out some of his notes. Much of what he says aligns with my thoughts, as well.

It’s the debate I was having a decade ago – do the readers need a short, intense piece of information or an on-going series of stories that will build knowledge? I haven’t changed my mind, and I’m sure he hasn’t, either.

Mark E. Johnson

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