Monday, October 15, 2012

Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload

Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload
By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

Any book that seeks to assist readers in becoming more discriminating consumers, whatever the marketplace involved, should not just be commended, it should be welcomed, hailed, and widely read.  This is certainly one of those books.

Over many years (over thirty now), I have been trying to encourage students (whether through lectures or textbooks) to critically analyze information from the Internet or material available via any media source.  How successful I have been is always questionable, especially since people tend to believe that if it is in print or if it appears on an Internet site, it has credibility.

Their chapter titles clearly reveal their intent: 1) How to Know What to Believe Anymore, 2) We Have Been Here Before, 3) The Way of Skeptical Knowing The Tradecraft of Verification, 4) Completeness: What Is Here and What Is Missing? 5) Sources: Where Did This Come From? 6) Evidence and the Journalism of Verification, 7) Assertion, Affirmation: Where’s the Evidence? 8) How to Find What Really Matters, 9) What We Need from the “Next Journalism.”  The Epilogue is entitled, “The New Way of Knowing.”

The authors of the book are both journalists with a great deal of experience, and they are clearly great writers.  The narrative flows easily.  Their numerous examples are interesting and engaging.  Central to their thesis, are the questions they raise at the end of chapter 1: “How will we as citizens learn what is true?  How will we find out what information we can trust in an age in which we are all our own experts and power has been ceded to everyone” (p. 11)?  At the end of Chapter 2, they raise the question, “How so we identify, with our new tools and options, what information is reliable” (p. 25)?  In Chapter 6, they ask: “How do we, as consumers, arrive at meaning in news?  How well do we navigate the borders between fact and belief, between empiricism and our own preconceptions” (p. 115)?

Incidentally, I always enjoy the use of the scientific method as a way to develop discipline and sanity in testing hypotheses.  In pages 116-119, the explanation is clear and precise—although I am skeptical that the average reader will understand all of its perameters or adopt the method in everyday life.

Unfortunately, the people who really need to read this book won’t, and I’m afraid that the predominant attitude regarding information that is printed (whether in newspapers, magazines,  books, or on the Internet) is likely to be believed without analysis, question, or challenge.  That, after all, is the status quo, and changing in any degree from what is known, accepted, and habitual is unlikely.

Just as speakers who deliver their ideas effectively (despite the worth, value, or ethical underpinning of the ideas themselves) tend to be believed without challenge, words in print often have the same effect.  It would be great if it were otherwise, but it is not nor will it ever be.

At the end of Chapter 3, the authors delineate what I see as the major hurtle that must be overcome to increasing skepticism when it comes to information (especially that available on the Internet): “Identifying what you are reading is not simply a matter of buyer beware.  You must learn to discriminate, to know what kind of journalism it represents, to discover the norms and motives lurking in the work—what the journalists are trying to do.  It is the first step, but a critical one, in knowing what to trust.  Once you have done this, then comes the work of knowing how to navigate, of walking the other steps of the skeptical way of knowing” (p. 56).

One thing the authors ought to consider is reducing the size (or focus) of this book to the process of verifying evidence.  They already have all the information, and it could be condensed, organized effectively, and all the advice they provide and suggestions they offer, could then be sold (in a different package, of course) as a way to improve communication, increase citizen potency, and heighten information credibility—all to the benefit of a more responsible democracy.  The problem of this book (for some readers) is that it is too long; there is too much information; and the needed advice, although obvious and available, may not have the effectiveness necessary.  (I say this and yet enjoyed all the examples the authors supply that make this book illuminating.)

I especially loved Chapter 8, “How to Find What Really Matters,” for its practicality, directness, and sense.  Their advice in answering the question, “Am I getting what I need from the news” (p. 165)? is spot on (pp. 165-169), and will make every reader a more capable consumer of news.

This is really an outstanding book that is incredibly enjoyable to read.  The authors have done an outstanding job in delineating the problem and suggesting specific methods for solving it.


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