News.me

Getting the News — danah boyd

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

Scheduling a half hour with danah boyd, Ph.D. is not easy. She’s a professional Internet researcher for Microsoft, Harvard, NYU, the University of New South Wales, and… Lady Gaga (seriously!). danah has a particular interest in the intersection of youth culture and technology, and has published extensively on social media in academic journals, her co-authored book, and at her blog. She discusses youth culture on the Internet with perspective and insight few adults can claim. danah is currently working on a new book, The Social Lives of Networked Teens, which will probably totally blow our minds as soon as we read it. We were lucky to get a few minutes to talk with her about journalism. Unsurprisingly, danah had enormous insight not just on what she needs to stay informed, but what young people need, too.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

The beginning of the day is all about what’s coming at me. I start off the day with my phone and email. In the middle of the night I’ll get the News.me Daily Digest, so I’ll look at that. I also get a lot of “crisis news” in my email — emails from people saying, “oh my god, you should know about this.” If I went to bed before 10 p.m., I also got Google News alerts in the middle of the night. Although more often than not I get them at the end of the day because of my inability to sleep at a reasonable hour. Twitter sometimes comes up early, but sometimes it doesn’t come up until much later because I can’t deal with it.

Midday, I have some downtime, so then I actually go to sites that I visit on a semi-regular basis. The New York Times is high up there. Global Voices is another I visit regularly. Boing Boing is one of the fun ones. I use the Tweeted Times to see what I’ve missed in my Twitter world — I don’t get to participate in Twitter very actively, so it’s a way to catch up with it later.

These are all things that generally make feel good, because they’re generally aligned with what I care about. Later in the day, if I have more downtime, I’ll start to consume things that are actually different. Anything that starts during the day, where I’m like, “I need to get a different perspective on this” — my first visit is to the Fox News website. I’ll hit Fox News, MSNBC, and sometimes I’ll hit CNN, just to see how the mainstream coverage is going.

Why do you go to Fox News first?

Because it’s most likely to be as different from my personal opinion as possible. Because I’m like: “What the fuck, America?” We’re not going to agree on anything, so I want to hear what that frame is.

I go to the New York Times because I respect them, because I appreciate them, because I value them. But at the same time, I want to know what the rest of the country is hearing. The New York Times is not what the majority is hearing.

In the same vein, I’ll poke around on Twitter, doing different searches, looking around specifically for things that are different from my point of view. I’ll also pop out Google News so I can see coverage from the different papers.

What do you think is missing from your news consumption?

In some ways, I want the inverse of News.me or Tweeted Times. Because the hardest thing for me is figuring out: What is everyone else talking about that I have no fucking clue about? The web tends to narrow your consumption more and more. And as a news junkie, that tends to piss me the hell off.

It’s about perspective. Look at anything in the political domain. I loathe Santorum. But I find it so fascinating to see how he’s framed in conservative news. The problem with reading the New York Times is that the Times is all about tempered and metered interpretations of what’s going on. Meanwhile, TV news is all about total extremism. It’s about facial expressions, and performance over content. Watching Fox, I can understand the appeal of Santorum. It doesn’t make me like him anymore, but I can at least get it.

My network is not talking positively about Santorum in any way. It’s not even talking positively about Romney. They’re both lunatics. But I know better than to think that’s how they’re actually being discussed beyond my network. I want a tool that gives me what’s outside of my perspective on these issues — because otherwise I have to do a lot of really difficult and exhausting work to find it.

What was the last great article you read?

At lunch this afternoon, the story on Jack White in the New York Times.

Was it good?

It was totally fascinating! And then I went and Wikipedia-ed 12 different things about Meg White. That’s fun news consumption.

I know that you study social media. I know that you study youth and social media. Are there ways news organizations can adapt to better serve young people?

General news is not relevant to young people because they don’t have context. It’s a lot of abstract storytelling and arguing among adults that makes no sense. So most young people end up consuming celebrity news. To top it off, news agencies, for obvious reasons, are trying to limit access to their content by making you pay for it. Well, guess what: Young people aren’t going out of their way to try to find this news, so you put up one little wall, and poof, done. They’re not even going to bother. That dynamic ends up really affecting those who already are ill-informed. I’m passionate about news. I pay attention to it obsessively. So of course I pay for it. But if you’re not passionate about news — if you don’t care about it — you’re not going to pay a cent for it.

When I hear news agencies talk about wanting to get young people, they don’t want to figure out how to actually inform them — they want to hear how to monetize them. And that pisses me off. My interest is in making sure they’re informed, but it’s often not through monetizable options.

With young people, the thing that gets them fastest and easiest is the thing that can spread the most easily. They access news through the ether. It’s pretty crazy — it’s not active consumption. I interviewed a whole group of kids 24 hours after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I asked them — “How did you hear about the shootings?” The answers were all random. “My grandmother called me. She called me to talk about how dangerous colleges are.” “My parents saw it on the news and they asked me about it.” “‘Love and Support for Virginia Tech’ went through my Facebook because this one girl I met three years ago went to Virginia Tech.” It was very ambient.

In order for news to be more available and accessible to young people right now, it’s about making sure that its ambience is magnified. And particularly that the availability of quality material is magnified. Kony 2012, the viral video, was shared by a lot of kids.  But when I interviewed kids who’d seen it, they didn’t know it was about Uganda — Africa was kind of all one country; Joseph Kony was a bad person who was actively doing this terrible thing to kids; all of the Africans seem to accept it — when in fact he’s been on everyone’s hit list for years. Everybody in my world was talking about Kony 2012 by critiquing it, but these kids didn’t know that.

The Times is probably one of the better sources because they do such a great job of getting their links out there. Their paywall tends to cause other problems. But the fact that you can access them through social media helps. Likewise, unbelievable quantities of celebrity crap does a great job of making videos easily sharable. Quality news doesn’t tend to make video easily sharable. Colbert and Stewart, though? Phenomenal at this shit. They manage to get their stuff out there. I am enamored with both of them.

Last question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of news?

I’m definitely optimistic. I roll my eyes when journalists say, “oh my god, kids these days, they’re not into news, when I was that age, blah blah blah.” I’m like — you were a nerd! There have always been geeky youth who were always into news. But the vast majority of young people have never been into news. Maybe kids ended up getting ambient news through newspaper routes. But then again, because of how the internet is structured, maybe they’re getting ambient news in new ways.

There’s a long history of ebbs and flows on where news fits into open government and a corporate lifespan. I’m not convinced that most of the existing players will stick around in their current form. TV news should never have gone 24/7, and we’re stuck with it now — the result of which is that there’s a lot of fear-mongering and a lot of crazy, and people basically becoming celebrities so they can be plastic TV-anchor types. And advertising is a dreadful way of funding this stuff. There’s a lot of innovation that’s needed.

The Times, for example, is doing a tremendous job experimenting. Do I like all of their experiments? No. But I give them massive credit for trying, rather than demanding that everyone go back to the old way. Like using data to try to explain stories in more detail? That’s great. More multimedia? Phenomenal.

The public has access to information in unprecedented ways. Unfortunately, it has access to good information and access to shitty information. For me, the challenge is: How do you create media literacy? How do you get people to critically engage the news that’s available? These are issues we need to address, but the availability of information is still amazing. And I think that’s part of what’s so terrifying to people, that there’s so much information out there.

More information does not make a more informed population. We need to think about what it actually means to create a more informed society. We’re a long way away from that. But I don’t have some nostalgic lust for the past, because I don’t think we’ve ever been truly informed.

Find danah at her personal website, on Twitter, and at her blog.

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

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