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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Engrossing: Internet blurs the boundary between fact and falsehood

Published: February 17, 2012
Section: Opinions

As an editor of The Hoot, I have an obvious interest in the way news is produced and consumed in our country.

Many people have predicted the downfall of the newspaper as Internet news sources have all but overtaken the traditional form.

A book that I’m reading for one of my classes this semester gives very interesting insight into to the way Web-based news sources have ousted the newspaper as our society’s primary supplier of current events, and ushered in the age of instant and viral information.

In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirkey reflects on how recently developed Internet technologies—specifically social media outlets—have allowed individuals to collaborate and organize in ways that were never before imaginable.

In his commentary on our society’s transition to electronic news sources, the author notes that the Internet’s lower operating costs (as opposed to paper) has led to a shift in the consumption of news content.

Shirky states that our society has “long regarded the newspaper as a sensible object because it has been such a stable one.” He suggests that our trust in newspapers is created, not because of any logical connection between its components, but because of its established structure and balance between these components.

He explains that “what holds a newspaper together is primarily the cost of paper, ink, and distribution; a newspaper,” and that “what doesn’t go into a newspaper is whatever is too expensive to print and deliver. The old bargain of the newspaper—world news lumped in with horoscopes and ads from the pizza parlor—has now ended. The future presented by the Internet is the mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from ‘Why publish this?’ to ‘Why not?’”

This is an interesting set of points.

First, that the structure of the newspaper—in its balance between articles/features, advertisements and alternative arts/sports/entertainment content to boost the publication’s market—coupled with a general widespread awareness of the angles of each publication and ultimate motivation to cover operational costs and produce profits, has allowed consumers of information to be aware of influences leading to the decision to publish or not publish each piece of content.

Second, that the Internet has removed the operational costs associated with broadcasting news to the masses and—with this massive dip in operational costs and space limitations for content—has removed limits on how much news can be broadcast and still make desired profits.

Shirky really gets to the heart of the matter with his statement: “The question that mass amateurization poses to traditional media is ‘what happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What happens when there’s nothing unique about publishing anymore, because users can do it for themselves?’ We are now starting to see that question being answered.”

Interestingly enough, I came to this realization earlier this week, when I— along with most of America—was devastated by the news of Whitney Houston’s death. I was reading an article in The New York Times, which credited a user on Twitter as the first to publish news of the singer’s death, more than 45 minutes before any other source.

Upon reading this, I looked at the results of an earlier Google search page—terms: ”Whitney Houston dead”—and clicked forward in the results. On the sixth or seventh page, I started to unearth blog posts and “news reports” that had been published over the past few years, all announcing the death of the artist.

In this moment, it was clear to see the way that the lack of filtration of content published on the Web impacts how we consume this information.

The Internet’s low operating costs, when compared with paper publishing have allowed information to flood the Web and have altered the way that society interacts with and consumes this information.

On the Internet, nobody is checking to ensure information being posted for access by the masses is accurate or unbiased. People had been publishing obituaries for a woman who was still very much alive.

When there was real news to report, however, an Internet news source was the first to make this information available to the public.

I can’t help but wonder how this strange juxtaposition of total nonsense on the same search page as real information affects the way we process the news we consume.

I am interested in how this Internet-facilitated transition to amateurized content obscures consumer’s ability to gain insight into the motivation behind published content and leads to confusion between information and entertainment or advertisement.

In the traditional form of newspaper, the motivation between the answer to the question “why publish this?” was clear to the consumers of most publications.

This rule applies to all publishing outlets.

Book publishing companies judge their acceptance or rejection of submissions based on whether or not its content would generate profits on the shelves of bookstores nationwide.

Magazine companies compile articles and features that will result in the greatest consumption by a specific interest group or demographic to maximize profits.

In this model, different types of content were differentiated by the publications in which they were printed and information and entertainment were clearly identified. As the Internet has become prominent, publication of all of these types of content has become effortless—I quote Shirky above in saying: “There’s nothing unique about publishing anymore, because users can do it for themselves.”

While it’s true that this amateurization of publishing facilitates the broadcasting of news and information that would never have reached public audiences due to the fact that it was not deemed “newsworthy,” it also makes it difficult for consumers of information to differentiate information from entertainment or advertisement. With the loss of distinction between these types of content, individuals lose perspective on what is fact and what is fabrication.

Shirky explains that “the old bargain of the newspaper” cues readers to expect the nonsense of advertisement and some published content in exchange for access to desirable informational content. In this situation, there is a clearly drawn and defined line between information and entertainment. On the Web, this line is blurred considerably, and I can’t help but wonder what happens when this perspective is lost and our consumption of information and nonsense.