The Way We Get News

A few minutes ago I sat down to write an entirely different post. My attention was caught by a friends’ comment on another friends Facebook post. That post asked prayers for the children of Oklahoma. Dreading news of yet another school shooting, I Googled “Oklahoma news”, trusting that the top hits would be from the Google News feed. It wasn’t a school shooting. It was a massive tornado, a mile wide, that traveled straight through Oklahoma City. This happened a few hours ago.

The news article contained a captured tweet from Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin. The tweet used the hashtag #okwx. I followed the tag to a real-time stream of comments, links and backyard photos of the tornadoes path.

Much has been written about Twitter and Facebook as a source of breaking news. I’m not sure I have much to add to that conversation, except “yes”.

I am struck by how far I have come from the way I used to get my news. I stopped watching televised news several years ago when the steady tide of breaking news became too much and overtaxed my nervous system. At that time, I trusted NPR to deliver the news I needed via radio. During times of national crisis or local emergency, I knew that NPR would prime me to pay attention where attention was warranted.

Late last year, I became obsessed with  podcasts, which now occupy my entire commute to work and back again. I don’t watch TV news. I don’t habitually listen to radio news. I have stopped reading newspapers and really don’t even follow newspapers blogs or Twitter feeds. I am off the media news grid. And yet, I still keep informed.

I use news curation tools like Zite, Feedly and Flipboard to push important stories up to my attention. This keeps me relatively well-informed about day to day updates. I fill in the cracks with media podcasts like On the Media to help me make sense of larger trends and find stories I missed.

The gap here is breaking news. Today, for the first time, I realized that I trust my social networks to let me know when something big is going down, and that I am okay with that.

I don’t need to know every last detail as it becomes revealed. I don’t need to watch wreckage porn to know things are bad. I just want to know what is happening, what is being done to respond and what I can do to help.

I am really interested in how people discover, interpret and receive their news. I am especially interested in those patterns of behavior as information habits. Where do you get your news? How have your news habits changed? Comments are most welcome.

Keep the people of Oklahoma in your thoughts. They are going to need our help for many years to come.

Becoming well-informed

Yesterday’s post about information rituals missed the point. I was working with the idea of information rituals as intentional, useful information habits. Yesterday’s post was a screed written by a madman, crippled  by the compulsive need to stash web links in the virtual nooks and crannies of his web space in the misguided belief that there will someday be enough time to visit them all, watch them all, read them all and use them all. There won’t be enough time and there won’t be a point. Yesterday’s post was more about link hoarding than about information rituals.

Yesterday’s post failed to consider this: why bother? The goal of link catching, organizing and follow-up can’t be to visit them all. There is no point to that. The web is immense and growing on a scale far beyond the human mind. Before we can consider useful information habits, we need to consider the goal. What are we trying to accomplish?

You can’t learn everything. You can’t be interested in everything. If you are, you certainly can’t invest your attention equally in all directions.

Information rituals should help a person benefit from their information streams: Facebook, Twitters, blog feeds, social bookmarks, emails and so on. The benefit is gathering the raw materials needed to be well-informed.

Being well-informed means seeing an idea or event from many different directions. Being well-informed means having a sense of understanding about a thing, how that thing relates to my life and how that relationship changes over time. Being well-informed is about gathering resources that help you make good decisions. Being well-informed helps you set goals, plan actions and assess outcomes. Being well-informed helps you lend value to others who can benefit from your specialized knowledge and focus.

And so, before I can think about developing useful information rituals, I need to establish my purpose. What is it about which I wish to become well-informed? This, it seems, will determine the most suitable rituals to cultivate.

So here’s the list of things about which I am trying to stay well-informed. These are more than just recreational interests. These are events, themes or concepts about which I need to become and remain well-informed in order to accomplish my larger goals. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • writing: as an action and a process
  • libraries: why we need them, how they operate, what they do
  • leadership theory and practice
  • books: what is being published, how are those books being received, what is their impact
  • eBooks: emerging publication models and the business of eText,  how reading eBooks compares to reading print books, how to connect readers with eBooks through library collections
  • mobile technologies and their use in education
  • open education: models, platforms, possible goals/outcomes
  • educational technologies: how technology intersects usefully with teaching and learning
  • pedagogy and learning theory: how people learn, how we teach people to learn more effectively; how libraries contribute
  • information theory: what is information, how is it used, how do people seek, find and interact with information
  • changes in web technology
  • social media: how they create communities of interest and how to use them to deliver messages to audiences
  • Buddhism and mindful living
  • parenting
  • creativity and things that inspire people to accomplish useful goals
  • politics and political action
  • world news
  • local news

Ah. I begin to see the problem. This is a very broad list, and I know the list is incomplete. I am trying to wrap my mind around too much. I am becoming somewhat informed in a number of these areas but am not being purposeful enough in finding where these areas overlap. I am sipping from streams of information that pertain to all of this but not focusing intention on developing deep knowledge.

I need to pare down my daily information diet. I need to identify the most beneficial sources of information in these specific areas, find places where these overlap and pursue those channels with greater focus. This might mean dropping some blog feeds. This might mean reshaping my Twitter feeds. I need to raise the criteria I use to screen what sources I try to follow to increase the value of time spent with each.

I do realize that this thread of posts may seem crazy. What I am talking about here is cultivating a mindful approach to information overload. We all suffer. We can all benefit from new habits. I suspect in the future, the ability to quickly filter information, screen out background noise and act quickly on the highest quality information will be a basic requirement for survival.

The mind evolves to survive our circumstances. I believe we can take control of this process. In fact, I believe we have to take control of this process or we will get bewildered, blinded and lost. If we don’t find ways to cultivate useful information rituals, we will become more and more poorly informed in the most information rich time our species has yet seen.