Friday, May 13, 2005


Chapel Hill - Malcolm GLADWELL’s relatively new book, “blink”, sits in our Nice home, halfway read. I look forward to finishing it next month.

But it has gotten me thinking a lot about first impressions and the news media.

GLADWELL’s point, if I am following it so far, is that we often are able to exercise some quite amazingly good judgment by our first “blink” reaction to something. Of course, sometimes we do no, but when we do, we all can be very good.

I hope toward the end of the book, the author will explain more about how we can first identify those times when our first reactions are the best, and then improve our ability there and elsewhere.

Back to the news media……

Every minute of every day, reporters around the world along with their editors and other colleagues make judgments about what news to cover, how to cover it, and then how to bring it to us.

Those decisions are taken based on lots of considerations. Some relate to tradition – we “have” to cover that school board meeting. Others relate to impact – imagine if we could get a picture of that guy dangling from the tree limb. Some relate to importance – how will that Iraq story affect us here? Still more are taken for business reasons – how do we design our front page so that this picture of dying people gets people attention?

Many of the decisions made by reporters and their editors and colleague are made on first reaction. The phone rings. Something comes over the “wire”. A news flash is seen on television. An e-mail arrives. An item pops up on a website. Someone walks in the office or says something in another place.

And from that often quick reaction start, many things unfold. Time is allocated by or to a reporter. Maybe a video person. Sketch artist. All sorts of possible people involved as the decision maybe made in an instant turns into a major time-driven project.

Along the way, instant decisions are made one right after the other. Is this a call I should take? Is that a photo I should take or get someone to take? Do I need another source? Do I need to get a document? Often, the answers to these come with little reflection and little collaboration. There is no time.

On this amazing timetable, in most cases, the rest of the process turns into a series of blinks as well. Quick decisions about whether this is going to be a lead or front page story? How much space will it get? How much time does it deserve? Is there a great photo to go with the story or is there something filed away we have to use instead? What will the headline be? Will it be written by someone who has the time to reflect fully on the entire story or by someone who is given a few minutes to come up with something “catchy”?

By the time all of those actions are taken the whole undertaking is over, often forgotten in terms of tomorrow’s collection of “news blink” decisions. There is usually very little time the next day to go back and look at how all those decisions actually turned out today. Yes, there is a morning meeting to talk briefly about yesterday’s work, but it is not much more detailed than were the blink judgments that went into the day.

A tremendous amount thus rides on the ability of journalists to make quick judgments about all that they confront in their work. Yes, part of their skill is being able to anticipate if we will agree with their judgments – at least for the most mainstream of news media. Sales of newspapers and radio/television ratings can tell them a lot about whether they were right.

But is being “right” all that matters? I would argue that it is not. Perhaps we need to both finish GLADWELL’s book and understand better how “blink” affects the news we consume today, and whether the blinkers need to know more about that themselves. Surely, there is a rich heritage of “running” ideas by “sages” in the business to get their “first reaction”. That’s clear. But what about all those decisions taken in a blink where there is not that input? How well do we understand what happens? Is it in the best interests of all to understand that process better?

There is a good reason why newspapers have often been called the “first rough draft of history”. As for radio and television, they remain for me largely onlookers. That’s another story.

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