On Usefulness

28 10 2007

For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past week or so, a classic example of why the mainstream media is becoming increasingly irrelevant played itself out in southern California. I’m not talking about the fires themselves so much as the media coverage of the fires.

Last Sunday, when the first fires were reported and the Santa Anna winds began to brew them up into a major firestorm, a large and international group swung into action. These people supplied up-to-the-minute information on fire location and direction, emergency contact information, mandatory evacuation orders and shelter locations. Several of these people were on the job for 36 hours at a stretch before collapsing for a few hours’ sleep and coming right back to keep the information flowing. Despite the terrible urgency of the information they presented, these people routinely cross-checked their sources for accuracy, posted immediate corrections when required, and always listed the source of their information.

This went on for five days.

By the way, not a single one of these people received a penny in compensation for their efforts.

Who were these stalwarts, you might well ask. CNN? ABC? Fox? NBC? BBC? Al-Jazeira? CBS?

While the highly-paid “journalists” of the networks were delivering information that was usually hours old (between commercial breaks and “news” about celebrities), the fine folks at FARK were delivering the real goods- for free. With no commercial breaks. FARK posters living in the affected areas posted non-stop information from scanners, emergency broadcasts, and personal observations for five days. A day before the media outlets noticed the crisis at the animal shelters in the area, FARK posters were already identifying donation points and organizations, and even organizing individual relief efforts.

For free. Because it needed doing, and the media outlets were universally incapable of doing the job.

How many people are aware of the fact that Mexico sent hundreds of firefighters north to help California with the disaster? They couldn’t stay long, because the fires affected Baja California as well, and they had to go home to fight for their own cities. Everyone who read the FARK threads on the subject knows this, but the mainstream media is curiously mute on the subject. The big media outlets are too busy comparing the California wildfires to Hurricane Katrina, speculating about the possibility of terrorist involvement, and bemoaning the fact that several “celebrities” were forced to evacuate.

This was not a unique set of circumstances. FARK on-the-spot reporting routinely scooped ALL of the media outlets during the Virginia Tech massacre. In addition to getting information out as much as an hour before the media outlets, FARK’s fact-checking process delivered better and more accurate information. What is this unbelievable fact-checking process? Thousands of intelligent, computer-savvy FARK readers and posters, many of whom had personal knowledge of the situation, location, or people involved.

The fact that the mainstream media is interested only in ratings (and the money those ratings mean for their networks) is hampering the spread of information. Facts are lost amid the noise of “human interest” stories and sensationalism.

Nattering about nonsense in lieu of delivering useful information has become the hallmark of the mainstream media. If you are depending on the mainstream media to keep you informed during a crisis, you’re putting your faith into purveyors of a “infotainment, journalism-like art product”.

This is not intended to shill for FARK- I get no benefit from doing so. I used FARK as the example with which I am most familiar. I am sure that other web communities performed similar functions which were far more useful than the media outlets. The point of this rant is that the media outlets have NO EXCUSE for failing so miserably. they have lots of money and equipment, herds of people supposedly trained in delivering information, and (most importantly) a massive infrastructure capable of delivering information all over the fucking planet. And they still failed at their primary purpose, literally pwned by a bunch of loosely-organized amateurs on a free website. That free website, by the way, was started by a guy with a picture of a squirrel.

Facts are always useful. Infotainment is the antithesis of useful. The large media conglomerates have failed of their original purpose by delivering infotainment in lieu of facts in their blind pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.

Current status: Irked

Current music: Who Wants to Live Forever by Queen

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3 responses

29 10 2007
-PF

I am sure that the local news outlets were doing the best they could to present as much information as possible to the local audience. Not for altruistic reasons, but simply to keep their audience listening, (chasing the all-mighty dollar) and to establish trust so their audience will listen in the future.

With the advent of internet sites like FARK (which is paid for by ads and membership to total FARK) you can have the best of both worlds; in-depth coverage from on the scene from sometimes anonymous sources, and coverage from reputable local news channels. You can also jump to international news and read about how the Russians, or British, or Australians, feel about our news. Anything is possible over the internet.
You can also read an anonymous post from some jerk with an agenda, about looting, shootings, and murders in Louisiana, or how the Bush administration was responsible for both hurricane Katrina and the fires in California. All I am saying is that you have to have a level of trust to act on information. The internet has a wonderful feedback mechanism, if some one posts BS as fact it is usually flamed out rather quickly. On the down side, the national media doesn’t understand this dynamic and reports internet sources with out checking the validity. This kind of thing destroys the validity of all news not just big corporations with dollars to loose.
The primary usefulness of internet news coverage is to provide a local viewpoint to a world wide audience. I believe that in the future this kind of news has the potential to influence people in a positive way. It also has the potential to give strange and violent people a voice for hate. Reader beware, news is now open season for abuse.
I for one am grateful that there are so many sources of information available. I am grateful that there are people who volunteer to post information on the internet for free. This is the modern equivalent to the HAM radio operator 50 years ago, the un-sung heroes of yesteryear. I am also grateful that local news has the money to support the resources necessary to get out the news about local problems.
National news is another issue all together….

Sorry for the long reply, I got carried away with myself.

-PF

29 10 2007
archvillain

The LOCAL news outlets were doing yeoman’s work. The major media outlets were basically getting in the way of people doing useful work and asking drakh like, “What’s the MOOD on the fire line?”

There were several so-called “trolls” on the FARK threads who tried to derail the useful information flow with partisan stupidity or outright misinformation, but the sheer volume and quality of factual information (and the cutthroat fact-checking I mentioned) disposed of that nonsense in short order.

You’re absolutely correct that the media dinosaurs (beings of collossal size, majestic appearance, and tiny, tiny brains) are completely in the dark about the internet and it’s potential usefulness.

29 10 2007
Patrick

“You’re absolutely correct that the media dinosaurs (beings of collossal size, majestic appearance, and tiny, tiny brains) are completely in the dark about the internet and it’s potential usefulness.”

This description is so perfect! The shifts that keep happening in information dispersal/consumption are astounding. Giant media conglomerates actually seem hostile to adapting. Their loss.

I have to wonder if media consolidation has a role in these problems. My gut tells me ‘yes’, but who knows?

Great post, btw. Farking spot-on.

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