Book Review: No Time To Think

Haste doesn’t just make waste. It ruins lives, creates bogus controversies and promotes bad decision making. So appears to be the thesis of:

Rosenberg, Howard, and Charles S. Feldman. 2008. No time to think: the menace of media speed and the 24-hour news cycle. New York: Continuum.

In the past year, I made a choice to almost never credit the first report of a news item, especially if it was about politics or public policy and doubly so if the story only quoted anonymous sources. According to the two angry men who wrote No time to think, this is a sensible policy.

Rosenberg and Feldman seem to be justified in their anger towards news media in general and towards the blogosphere, but sometimes their criticism seems to lapse into snark and profanity. This hurts their case somewhat, as does the lack of detailed sourcing for their anecodotes. But their case is still pretty convincing.

The authors assert that the increasing acceleration of news coverage, which began with radio and newsreels, but given wings by the founding of CNN in 1980 and hyperdrive by the birth of the blogosphere has created a universe of error. An error-filled universe with bad consequences for everybody.

They make their case with many ancecodotes of stories being published without factchecking and in some cases before an event supposedly happened. The stories are compelling but not fully cited. This makes fact-checking the book challenging but possible with enough time. The book does have a two page bibliography which may or may not have better citations for the anecdotes used in the book. It also has a good index so you’ll be able to locate their anecdotes quickly.

While the cable world of 24/7  “news coverage” (really mostly speculation) gets the lion’s share of blame for today’s sad state of news, the blogosphere gets a special drubbing. Rosenberg and Feldman assert with some justice that most bloggers mindlessly repeat and embellish what they hear on traditional media, allowing inaccurate, inflamatory stories instant and global reach. They attribute this not so much to malice on the part of bloggers, but to a lack of journalistic training, laziness in fact checking and a belief that any mistakes made will soon be corrected by other bloggers.

Rosenberg and Feldman examine the “self-correcting blogosphere” belief in some detail with extensive quotes from believers and non-believers alike. Based on their examination of what’s out there, the two authors conclude that other bloggers are more likely to be an echo chamber than offer corrections. But this conclusion is also offered on the basis of anecdotes concerning major stories. But it does feel true.

Aside from diagnosing the problem of media speed and stories that run off the track of truth before they start, the authors make a stab at prescribing a solution. The key to fighting the current sea of disinformation is teaching media literacy to people as young as possible. Media literacy is the practice of asking questions about what you see — who is giving you the information? How is it being presented? How is it being sourced? Could the presenters have their own agenda? And so on. Rosenberg and Feldman say that Canada is advanced in teaching media literacy. I can’t speak to that, but if you’d like to judge one example for yourself, check out Media Literacy, Television, Video and Film Resources from the province of Manitoba.

Despite a few weaknesses in tone and documentation, I think this is a worthwhile book. I also think it would make a good combination with the book True enough: Learning to live in a post fact society.

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