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Sept. 16, 2009, 3 p.m.

Matt Thompson: We can’t keep offering news without context

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, and its focus is the impact of social media on journalism. There are lots of interesting articles, and we’ll be highlighting a few here over the next few days. Here’s a piece by our friend Matt Thompson about the need for context in the work news organizations produce. —Josh]

For the longest time, whenever I read the news, I’ve often felt the depressing sensation of lacking the background I need to understand the stories that seem truly important. Day after day would bring front pages with headlines trumpeting new developments out of city hall, and day after day I’d fruitlessly comb through the stories for an explanation of their relevance, history or import. Nut grafs seemed to provide only enough information for me to realize the story was out of my depth.

I came to think of following the news as requiring a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge like so many cereal box tops I could someday cash in for the prize of basic understanding. Meanwhile, though, with the advancements of the Web and cable news, the pace of new headlines was accelerating—from daily to minute-by-minute—and I had no idea how I’d ever begin to catch up.

In 2008, I encountered a study describing others from my generation who seemed to share my dilemma. The Associated Press had commissioned professional anthropologists to track and analyze the behavior of a group of young media consumers. Their key conclusion: “The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.”

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     Sept. 16, 2009, 3 p.m.
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