Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Recorders and Processors

I was deep into a research article on how people process information and it struck me how much what they were talking about also fits some of the challenges in journalism. I'll avoid getting too PhDweebish, so here's how I'd translate what they were talking about into the roles journalists now face. 

The article drew a distinction between information recorders and information processors from a cognitive science perspective.  From a journalism perspective, think of information recorders as the basic stuff of news reporting: the taking of basic facts, interviews, and observations and then cobbling them together into a coherent but straightforward representation of what happened.  If you need a metaphor, think of it as taking flour, yeast, water, and other ingredients and baking a loaf of bread.  Information processors work at a higher level.  Some might call it a "value added" level, in which you take the work of the recorders and turn it into something similar.  We know these folks as aggregators (or if you're cynical, thieves). Or to extend the baking metaphor, they're taking the bread and making toast and jam, or a really tasty sandwich. 

As smarter people than I have long pointed out, it's become economically more challenging to be a recorder these days than a processor. Adding value, via opinion and color and snark and perspective and humor, makes the basic stuff of news much more interesting, more engaging.  Of course the recorders could do this too, and often have, but the constraints of traditional journalism have, until recently, made this difficult.

How does this affect the audience?

You read an awful lot about how journalists should do their jobs, and a lot of speculation about what it means to the audience, but damn little evidence -- hard date -- is presented to support many of the claims.  Why?  Because it's hard work, doing research.  Instead, toss in a few anecdotal interviews, a few gut feelings, maybe swipe a few Pew tables, type it all up and call it a major report on the future of the field.  As if real research was ever that simple.

Recorders out there, your job it to feed the spew.  Processors out there, you help make sense of it all in interesting (or partisan, or humorous) ways. From a theoretical standpoint, and this does get PhDweebish, I can say with some confidence that the end result in a further fragmented audience with less and less "common knowledge."  That's a problem for a democracy, or so the theorists tell us.  But that's a post for another day.

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