Monday, June 02, 2008

Get me an ethnographer, sweetheart

Forget rewrite, sweetheart. Get me an anthropologist.

The crisis of confidence in the media business has gotten so bad that the Associated Press revealed today that it sent a team of ethnographers around the world to see if young folks consume news differently on their laptops and iPhones than their parents did in print and on TV. And, by golly, they do.

After months of research in such exotic locales as Hyderabad and Kansas City, the Polaroid-packing team came to the conclusion that Jon Stewart is the archetype of next-generation journalism. There’s a certain perverse logic to the findings, as nonsensical, impractical and non-starting as they may be. Here’s how they got there:

As anyone who has young people around the house knows, the first wired-from-birth generation is composed of multitasking, multimedia junkies who consume bits and bytes of buzz as fast as their thumbs can fly. The itch to twitch has abbreviated attention spans to the point that a 2½-minute video on YouTube seems longer to the average young person than the interminable “English Patient” was to me.

Far from being fulfilling, however, the incessant, obsessive consumption of low-calorie factoids has given rise, in addition to occasional instances of repetitive stress syndrome, to a condition identified by the AP’s anthropologists as “news fatigue.”

“Participants with news fatigue would try to ascertain whole news stories but they regularly were left unsatisfied,” reported the ethnographers in a 71-page report. “Ultimately, news fatigue brought many of the participants to a ‘learned-helpless’ response. The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in” to following the news.

“Adding to news fatigue among the participants was the widespread belief that ‘all news today is negative,’” continued the study. “Over and over again, the negativity of news – tragedy, crisis, war and terror – added to the desire to tune out.”

That’s where Jon Stewart comes in. “Satirical shows provided an antidote to news fatigue by creating an‘anti-negative,’” said the ethnographers. “Jon Stewart could take even the most serious news and spin it and make it palatable.”

Based on the above findings, forward-looking news executives would be advised to ensure that future stories report all the latest developments, contain all the facts, provide context, include in-depth explanation, forecast future events and, above all else, are upbeat and funny.

Although there is some modest academic value to the AP's research, the impractical and contradictory recommendations derived from it bring to mind a quote from another anthopologst, the legendary Margaret Mead. “Women want mediocre men,” she observed. “And men are working hard to become as mediocre as possible.”

Journalists shouldn't accept mediocre expectations.

5 Comments:

Blogger JordanS said...

Good stuff, Alan. Maybe instead of buying plane tickets the the AP should buy a mirror and hold it close up. They haven't evolved the craft of storytelling in 50 years. Meanwhile, the way stories are told in other media keeps getting better. The issue isn't how news is being consumed other places—it's how other people are delivering the information. The AP should look at how competing media package stories and draw lessons in craft and creativity.

Jordan Stolper

7:23 AM  
Blogger Kyle Stich said...

It's taken a few years to finally recognize the need for such a study, for certain. The question of whether or not young people (or even people in general) read their new differently has lingered for too long. I personally think it's pretty obvious that they do.

I agree with Jordan, that the AP should take a look at itself.

I found your description of the AP as "Polaroid-packing" quite fitting, seeing as Polaroid film is no longer being manufactured, officially outdated. It's officially a curio or vintage item.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Wyzguy said...

There's a difference between how anthropologists write and how journalists write (and apparently how they interpret). The observation in the study (as the first, most boring part of the study makes clear, observing is what anthropologists do) about Jon Stewart does not therefore mean Jon Stewart is a model for journalism. All it means is the people being studied said Jon Stewart was a news source for them, and their reaction was visibly different to him than to traditional media. It merely illustrates the problem traditional media face; it is not a prescription. If you read all the way to the end, the study actually presented The Telegraph as one possible model. The study also did, in fact, address how stories are packaged. In fact, that's the main point of doing the study in the first place: The way it's being done online now by both print and TV organizations is not greatly different than how TV or print packages things in their legacy platforms, and it does not work in reaching young people.

9:58 AM  
Blogger T Heller said...

No wonder young people are flocking to a messiah-like figure...

Someone like Stewart who seemingly makes sense of the world they "experience" (barrage of factoids, really) has a decided leg up on someone who doesn't offer such a patina of "awareness" (or, worse, carries the burden of those factoids.)

Gotta run now -- the sea levels are rising....

11:03 AM  
Anonymous bevo said...

I used this example in my research class. The students were shocked - Shocked! - to learn that I was right. Companies routinely treat qualitative studies as gold plated research.

Unfortunately for any organization that bases its strategic decisions on a qualitative study like an ethnography, has plated over lead.

JordanS recognizes that newspapers are no longer capable or willing to tell a story. The product is simply terrible.

My students loved an hour long podcast from This American Life because it explained the mortgage mess. Of the things they read, their favorite of the 15 articles, were (1) a manuscript from a conference proceeding, (2) a manuscript from an academic journal, (3) a piece from Harvard Business Review.

The remainder, which included 11 articles from newspapers, were deemed uninteresting.

I tallied similar results from prior classes. Keep in mind, these students are 20 to 22 years old.

Why do they like academic oriented articles more than newspaper articles? Better story telling.

Where do I collect my consulting check?

6:46 PM  

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