It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper. —Jerry Seinfeld
I saw an interesting editorial cartoon yesterday, which, of course, I didn’t have the foresight to actually save so that I could accurately reference this morning. The cartoon lamented the fact that when historians look back at the exchanges of this presidential election, it will be candidates 140-character tweets they’ll examine rather than anything like the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
The comparison is stark. How news and information is delivered has changed not only in terms of media, but the brevity with which news is delivered. Sure, there will be debates during this campaign cycle, but even those will ultimately be reduced to sound bites of 140 characters or less.The Twitter limit applies not only to the application, but to the reduced size of our attention spans.
Once upon a time, the details of the news and the excellence of reporting and writing were honored. Winning a Pulitzer prize was an exception because of talent and skill. Now, winning a Pulitzer is an exception because someone actually put in more than 300 words worth of effort. Long-form reporting still happens at places such as the New York Times and Washington Post, but then the media departments of both newspapers instantly find ways to reduce thousands of words to a 140-character tease.
Even here, I create a 140-character excerpt that appears in social media links to the article. Hundreds of people view that excerpt, but only a fraction of those read the article. We frequently use nude imagery not because it has anything to do with the article, but because it is a quick way to get attention.
Tweeting The News
Almost every newspaper of any size now has a media department. That staff is responsible for not only creating 140 character descriptions of articles, but managing and measuring the responses they get to those descriptions. Read through the comments on almost any provocatively written tweet or Facebook post and it becomes evident that many of the most volatile remarks are made by people who never actually read the article; they’re just responding to their interpretation of what the article might say based on the structure of that tweet.
Great tweet writing is a skill and in today’s media it is just as important as headline writing and copy editing. A well-constructed tweet can bring thousands of eyes to a topic, or can leave one totally ignored. Knowing which hashtag to include, the precise verbiage that is easily understood, is not something that was traditionally taught in journalism schools. Rarely does anyone notice when a tweet is done well. Let a newspaper or politician miscommunicate online, though, usually through a poor choice of words, and watch the shit hit the fan.
To illustrate my point, let me share some of the most recent news tweets across a variety of topics. There’s more information behind each tweet, but how many people will actually bother to click through and read the articles? I’m betting not many. Fewer than 10 percent of readers ever click a link, here or anyplace else on the Internet. Let’s see how you do.
— Bloomberg Politics (@bpolitics) July 29, 2016
Flint officials now face criminal charges for doctoring water reports and concealing lead test results. https://t.co/jzpyXpVPw1
— New Republic (@NewRepublic) July 29, 2016
— Reuters U.S. News (@ReutersUS) July 29, 2016
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) July 29, 2016
Pope Francis entering the former German Nazi Auschwitz I camp through ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gate. pic.twitter.com/dMvBzNPG7J
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) July 29, 2016
— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) July 29, 2016
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 29, 2016
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 29, 2016
— Jezebel (@Jezebel) July 29, 2016
Putting Things In Perspective
How many of those articles did you click through to investigate? Any? Consider that a few short years ago those nine stories would have been enough to fill a 30-minute television newscast (sports and weather aside). In print, they would have dominated the A section of any newspaper. Yet, here you have it all in 140 characters and some well edited GIFs.
I’m old, so it is difficult for me to see this shift as anything other than a loss of information and understanding. Reading through a flurry of tweets, we might come away feeling more intelligent and informed, but we don’t actually know enough about any of those stories to speak knowledgeably and authoritatively. Not that such a lack of information ever stops us. We’re quite willing to go ahead and open our mouths anyway, facts be damned.
What probably bothers me most about this change in how we receive information is that without all the details we are more likely to react harshly, sarcastically, and with suspicion. We don’t trust the tweet because we don’t allow ourselves to gain enough information to understand the full story. We lack compassion. We lose the opportunity to learn. We fail to consider different perspectives. We wander around so ignorant that we don’t recognize ignorance.
If you’ve made it this far into today’s article, you likely already understand. Of the few people who started the article, less than five percent finish. Again,that’s not just true here, but for most any online reading.
Perhaps one day the pendulum will swing back the other direction and we’ll appreciate well-written and ardently-reported stories again. This 140-character world doesn’t work for me. We need more information, not less. I suppose that’s every individual’s choice, though, isn’t it?
Sigh. At least there’s a nude picture at the top.