Social media raises the ante on the dangers of media speed

Media commentary by Charles Feldman

When Howard Rosenberg and I started thinking about, and then began to write, what became No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle (Continuum Publishing), the year was 2006. (The book was published in 2008.)

Facebook, founded in Cambridge Massachusetts, was barely two years old in 2006.  Twitter was just getting started in San Francisco.   We mentioned them in the book, of course - but our focus was primarily on the impact of 24-hour radio and television news, as well as blogs, which had forced journalists to greatly accelerate the pace at which they reported the news.  

 All speed, little light, has too often been the consequence of instant social media, argues Feldman. 

All speed, little light, has too often been the consequence of instant social media, argues Feldman. 

This acceleration led to mistakes - some small and relatively unimportant, others large and of potentially enormous consequence.   But what seemed fast in either 2006 or 2008 is positively snail-like today.  

In No Time to Think, we headed one chapter, “All the News Before It Happens.”  That is even truer now than it was when we went to press.

The iPhone, with its photo and video capability, has made potential “citizen journalists” of all of us.   But the emergence of instant social media, which mobile technology helped spread, has backed even the most staid of mainstream journalistic institutions into a corner.  

In this corner, rumor and innuendo sometimes pass for “news.”  That’s been the case in the past, of course.  What’s different today is that a new, more insidious ethic has taken hold - one that not only makes it okay to “report” things that turn out to be factually wrong, but almost relishes the notion that others (presumably our so called “citizen journalists”) will quickly catch the mistakes and correct them.  

This occasionally happens, to be sure - but not nearly enough.  And it is hardly the point. Getting it right, rather than being first, used to be the cherished standard.  Now, getting it first is often the goal: damn the facts, full speed ahead.

It is said that journalism is the first draft of history. But if this is so—and I think it is—then social media is the first letter (or perhaps the first 140 characters) in that history. The speed at which these characters now flow - going viral sometimes in mere minutes - is presenting journalists, not to mention the consuming public, with uncomfortable challenges.

We did not—and could not—argue in No Time to Think that the genie needed to be put back in the bottle.  Of course, it cannot, and I am not advancing that argument now. The world we have is the world in which we all must live. 

It's self-evident that speed has always shaped journalism: the telegraph was faster than the pigeon; radio and television carried information at the speeds of sound and light.  

And yet, serious journalistic institutions tried to, and did, maintain standards to restrain the compelling desire to get the news out quickly at the expense of facts.  We did, after all, still control the microphones and cameras and transmitters that carried our stories to the far corners of the globe.  

We still do.   Which is what makes the current rush to be first, rather than right, so unnecessary.  

If we were to update our book, we would no doubt subtitle it, “The Menace of Media—and Social Media—Speed and the 24-second News Cycle.”  Alas, by today’s questionable standards, even 24 seconds may be too slow.

Charles Feldman, special consultant to Dunlop Media, spent 20 years as an investigative reporter at CNN.  He is based in Los Angeles.