Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload
by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
“Some people observing the media landscape today have wondered whether truth even matters anymore. Perhaps, they speculate, in the new information age reality is simply a matter of belief, not anything objective or verified; now there is red truth and blue truth, red media and blue media. . . .[R]ather than trying to find out what is going on, they have already decided. Perhaps, in a sense, we have already moved from the age of information to the age of affirmation.”
If this is a scary thought for you, then I encourage you to read Blur, which is both clear and engaging. It offers the reader some tools for understanding ‘news’ today, for being able to dissect stories on blogs, social media, and news feeds, and pull out the kernels of truth.
The book opens with an interesting scenario—the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island is happening today instead of in 1979. The reactor core of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania overheated. How this would be reported today—minute by minute updates with contradictory information from radio talk shows, and completely different spins on different partisan channels (Government cover-up? Political wedge issue on the environment?)—shows you how very different your information world is than that of previous generations.
So that you understand what news used to look and sound like, Blur has a quick history of communication—speech, writing, print, telegraph, radio, TV, cable, and Internet. The authors show why you must be skeptical of many (most?) sources of information, and they outline six steps of ‘skeptical knowing.’ This effort to parse information reminds me of one of the important missions of teacher librarians—to teach you how to evaluate sources of information.
In addition to skeptical knowing, people must engage in verification because many news sources no longer do so. The authors describe this as ‘clerkism’—passing along what others have told them is true. Since news is now a 24/7 cycle, a lot more time is taken in arranging the information and a lot less in fact checking. The authors also point out that sometimes it takes a while to discover the whole truth, and media sources quit following the story before that happens. (If you’d like a great example of how a story can change over time, read the book Columbine by David Cullen.)
By calling our current state ‘the age of affirmation,’ the authors mean that many news sources only seek to affirm the prejudices that their audiences already have. They may present actual facts, but those facts are ‘cherry picked’—they leave out any truths that would cause their audiences to question their own beliefs. Kovach and Rosensthiel show you how you can determine if a news source is doing this cherry picking.
There is a lot of good information here as well for students who are thinking of careers in journalism. Though much has changed in the last thirty years, there are journalistic values that will always be important. By including snapshots of journalists famous for their brilliant work (e.g., David Burnham), the reader sees how truly valuable research-minded journalists are to society and why this role must continue in the information age. Here again, the authors are helpful, showing how this can be managed and what news sources now and in the future should look like.
High school housekeeping: This is a quick read of about 200 pages, and while it’s not particularly difficult, it’s very informative. High school students should absorb the text. The examples of journalists who have worked to find the truth are compelling. (Check out the story of the many brilliant exposes by Seymour Hersh. Just—wow.) As this book tells you how to dig for facts and truths—how to evaluate information—it’s great for any student. But as it also discusses what news sources should look like and how new journalists can help create sources of information that are reliable as well as ever-changing (on the web), Blur is a great book for journalism students. “The history of learning is the story of human ingenuity reacting to technology, and it occurs differently depending on how cultures respond.”