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Saturday, May 11, 2013

News from the Net - or How I Learned to Love the Printed Word

Tell me again about getting news from the Internet.
I go to a lot of sources in trying to get well beneath the surface of news stories.  That includes checking out as many sources as possible to verify information in stories that interest me.  So as I Cerf around the net (trivia question: why the spelling of “Cerf”?) I find myself troubled – not about the information I find but about the presentation.
If I am to believe reports about our education system, today’s graduates – and those from the last 10 to 15 years – are deficient in reading and reading comprehension.
And it seems nearly all the sites I frequent are doing their best to “address” the issue.  I used the quotes because it may be coincidental that they now seem to write at a 6th grade level.
Way back when I was taking some JO courses, we learned the difference between writing for print and writing for (then) TV and radio.  I remember the continuing admonishment that, “ only have one crack at it with TV news.  The audience can’t back up a paragraph to gather context or reread what you said. [Hey, it was late 60’s.  It was carved in stone.  It had to be, that’s how we stored stuff – that or the papyrus and stylus that Timmy, that rich guy, had.]
Yeah.  That’s all changed.  You can back up if you want to.  Frankly, I may have done it a few times for news.  More often, it’s to replay a comedian’s line on Comedy Central.
OK, OK.  I’m getting there.  So the sites still write aimed at 6th graders even though expanding the online vocabulary is easy if you figure in the access to online dictionaries.  We don’t expand anyone’s horizon, thinking, or even comprehension.  We stall them at 6th grade.
Len, you Bozo.  50¢ words for the sake of 50¢ words.  Not so fast.  Any number of times certain words just work.  They’re the right word.  They don’t have to have the word like included.  But everything gets dumbed down.
Guess what.  I buried the lead.  It’s here:  Now, on a number of sites, especially those tied to broadcast outlets, the “story” consists of a one- or two-sentence written intro followed by a video.  I’m not talking a documentary.  No.  More often than not, these are either standups (“News 2, we got a release about the mayor.  Hi-tail it over to city hall and do a standup.”) or the anchor person, as a lift from a recent newscast. 
That’s it.  Nothing in-depth.  No references, no interviews or b-roll that actually depicts the scene.  And everything at a 6th grade TV level. 
What’s wrong with that?  Aside from the cursory report?  Well, first, what can a standup really tell?  Why not post that release itself or how ‘bout the TelePrompter®  feed.  OK.  That’s a little far-fetched.  But consider something as simple comprehension. 
Human speech generally hangs around 120 to 180 words per minute and, if you have someone’s attention, comprehension is between 50 and 70 percent.
On the other hand, good readers clock in at 300-400 WPM (ignoring Evelyn Woods) and have comprehension between 70 and 85 percent.2   It was higher, on average, 25 years ago.  Maybe we had more practice. 
What does that reading speed mean?  It’s the equivalent of doubling or tripling your processor speed. 
Of course, that’s if we’re talking about print versus a standup reporter.  Certainly, written and produced properly, audiovisual media materials are capable of blowing away print.  Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re doing.  We’re simplifying.  Oversimplifying.  And in the process, telling less and less of the story.  Maybe that’s my real issue.  I don’t want to have to surf so much.

2Recall of Thematically Relevant Material by Adolescent Good and Poor Readers as a Function of Written Versus Oral Presentation, Sandra Smiley et. al.