In print journalism, patience is a virtue

April 14, 2009

Around the 30th anniversary to mark publication of “All the President’s Men,” Larry King asked Bob Woodward if he and Carl Bernstein would have been able to topple, through the power of journalism, Nixon’s Watergate scandal today as successfully as they did in 1974.

Woodward said no.

The Internet, combined with 24-hour news services (like King’s own CNN) have made modern audiences more demanding for constant, down-to-the-second news updates. We want to be able to know exactly what the latest is at any given moment.

Hell, yesterday I couldn’t help but keep refreshing my browser, anticipating in bated breath the verdict on Phil Spector’s murder trial. Spector was found guilty, by the way.

Does that mean I’m guilty, too, of falling into the demographic of an impatient news audience, angry if headlines aren’t updated every five minutes?

Woodward said that when he and Bernstein were reporting the Watergate story for the Washington Post, there was no Internet, no cable TV, and essentially no such thing as a constant news update. People had to wait, patiently, for the newspaper to come out each day. If something HUGE broke, everyone was lucky if a late-afternoon or evening “special edition” hit the presses. Woodward and Bernstein had time to craft their stories over the course of days at a time; there was no concept then, said Woodward, to compete with technology for breaking the news.

With all the news-gathering and news-breaking in their hands, Watergate had time to unfold.

It’s been widely argued that the advancement of technology is killing our attention spans, and our ability for patience.The immediacy and convenience of compact discs have replaced the patience we once had to get up and turn over a bulky LP to side 2. Three TV stations were once enough, until cable came along. And cable wasn’t enough when the Internet came along. And so on.

It’s not just attention spans, either. CNN itself published an article today positing that rapid-fire news bulletins, and those social networking tools like Twitter, are also killing off people’s sensitivity to others.

Basically, it says that the brain can’t process all of the information in the quick speed it arrives, and it ultimately begins to destroy our “moral compass.”

“The study raises questions about the emotional cost, particularly for young people, of heavy reliance on a torrent of news snippets delivered via TV and online feeds such as Twitter.”

The story goes on to cite a USC professor:

“Research leader Damasio … said the findings stressed the need for slower delivery of the news, and highlighted the importance of slow-burn emotions like admiration.”

Thank you Woodward and Bernstein … we admire you.


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