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April 23, 2013, 3:05 p.m.

Breaking news pragmatically: Some reflections on silence and timing in networked journalism

“It certainly takes courage to speak — but it takes a different kind of courage to be silent, to listen, to trust, and speak when the time is right.”


Speak only if it improves upon the silence. —Mohandas Gandhi

Last week’s coverage of the events in Boston showed how much the networked press needs to better understand two things: silence and timing.

The Internet makes it possible for people other than traditional journalists to express themselves, quickly, to potentially large audiences. But the ideal press should be about more than this. It should be about demonstrating robust answers to two inseparable questions: Why do you need to know something now? And why do you need to say something now? Both questions demand awareness of what not to say, and when not to say it — knowledge the networked press is only beginning to develop.

The broadest definition of the networked press is a system that attends to, represents, circulates, and amplifies publicly meaningful perspectives. Last week in Boston, this system included: reporters at traditional, mainstream news organizations; Twitter and Facebook users circulating real-time information; government, transit, and law enforcement officers issuing updates and alerts; consumers of TV, radio, and police scanner streams; and Reddit and 4chan users who tried, and failed, to identify the bombers.

At best, the networked press told people important, time-sensitive information; it fostered empathy and thoughtful action; and it helped to create a sophisticated public ready to prosecute this tragedy and prevent future ones. But, sadly, there were lots of moments when this system failed spectacularly:

To be sure, there were bright spots. Some news and social media organizations restrained themselves, tried to educate audiences, and reflected (belatedly) on how they work. Some reporters skillfully filled the air without fueling speculation, and one openly admitted “I don’t know shit.” The Society for Professional Journalists cautioned against premature reporting, and some academics weighed in to explain how crowdsourcing could be improved.

But the biggest errors of the week — for legacy news organizations and social media users — happened when those who spoke might have been better off saying nothing at all.


I mean silence as the thoughtful absence of speech. To suggest that people sometimes not speak, share interpretations, or engage in open, visible, experimental communication is to question ideas that run deep in U.S. culture: that more speech is always better, that many eyes make all bugs shallow, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We are encouraged to express ourselves, avoid libel, and trust that the marketplaces of ideas will eventually, somehow, produce the right answer. Social media companies cultivate these habits and attitudes as they encourage us to comment, like, tag, tweet, check in, and follow with abandon. We create value for them and their advertisers, while ostensibly letting us test our opinions against others.

So when moments like last week strike, the networked press finds itself unprepared for silence. We experience a structural double whammy — hamstrung by social and economic forces that encourage us to express ourselves, and political traditions that expect truth to emerge from its collision with error. Yet last week showed that, sometimes, events might need to unfold without commentary. As a business model, social networking sites are premised on constant expression, but does this mean the press needs to be?

How could we make sense of such silences? It might be interpreted as trust in those who are speaking — but this assumption only works if speakers have legitimately earned the right to speak on our behalf. Silence might also be interpreted as trust in unmonitored power (e.g., law enforcement and government officials, or news organizations with special access to them), depending upon those we cannot see or hear to act on our behalf. But this assumption only works if those in power know the difference between privacy and secrecy — between confidentiality that shelters people from unproductive scrutiny versus censorship that fuels corruption. Smart critiques of radical openness and Internet transparency are beginning to help us understand the meaning of silence; but we need more of them, especially in relation to breaking news.

The risks of misplaced trust are real. But we are in a unique historical moment when the press is ripe for radical redesign — when it’s possible for those creating the conditions under which the networked press operates to help us understand the meaning and value of online silence during breaking news events.


One way to trust silence is to understand why people speak when they do.

In the sociology of news organizations, there’s a rich literature on the role of timing in news. Often, news breaks because assumptions, technologies, and practices align: Journalists consider something significant enough to be called an “event”; it happens somewhere that news organizations are used to observing and describing; trusted sources stand ready to provide predictable quotes; and readers are primed to receive the news at about that time, from that place, in that context.

Even online news organizations obey predictable time patterns. One study describes online hard news as a series of “event push” routines in which journalists follow the rhythms the Internet imposes on them; another found that, despite the ideal of a continuously updated Internet, most stories are not updated more than 2 hours after they’re published; and another described how online newsrooms are more apt to label news “breaking” if they think it appeals to audiences and differentiates them from competitors.

News rhythms reflect what Emile Durkheim called a “consensus on temporality.” That is, they depend upon people agreeing to mark time — on how and why one moment is significantly different from another. Sometimes markers are biological — days end with the sun setting and people sleeping — but they’re often also social, technological, and organizational. Morning and evening newspapers reflected advertiser needs, readers’ free time, and printing and distribution schedules. News rhythms exist in traditions — not nature — and they only “work” because of largely invisible agreements about which changes are meaningful enough to be considered news.

So, given the distributed and dynamic character of today’s networked press, when news can break at any moment, when should it break?

If the press only marks change when two or more reputable sources agree, the bar is set too low. Far better would be for the press to pass a pragmatic test: to explain what meaningful difference it would make for a particular version of the truth to be expressed now. Watertown residents needed to know to stay indoors when they did, but why was it necessary for some people to fill Twitter air time speculating about the suspects’ ethnicity when they did? If the traditional media no longer “owns the story,” then the networked press might do a better job of telling us why it speaks when it does.

A pragmatic test for breaking news1

It’s extremely difficult to know whether your speech improves upon the silence at any moment in time. This is not an easy test to pass.

William James, the long-time Harvard researcher and co-founder of the pragmatist philosophy, suggested that instead of asking “is it true?” we might better ask “what practical difference would it make for this idea versus another to be considered true?” It’s a clunky question for sure, but it opens up a type of skepticism that might help the networked break news meaningfully. It asks the press not only to verify information (e.g., finding two or more reputable sources who agree) but also to decide for itself (and maybe tell audiences) why it’s essential to hear a particular perspective at that moment.

Experienced news editors are already accustomed to asking themselves not only whether something has been verified, but whether it’s newsworthy. My sense, though, is that last week’s media failures may have been mitigated if the networked press (journalists, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan users alike) was used to passing this pragmatic test — and if there were supportive cultures for doing so. Instead of assuming that more speech is always better — that the online marketplace will judge the value of verified information “out there” — it might be a bigger public service to speak and consume attention only if you have a clear and defensible reason for doing so. Last week, we saw the consequences of letting marketplaces figure it out for themselves, of letting the media make things seem true too quickly.

John Dewey, another pragmatist and press commentator, described ideal communication as empathy and foresight. Since every utterance helps to “make things common,” speakers are ethically obligated to imagine the consequences of their words. This kind of imagination requires knowing who you’re communicating with, and anticipating how your words might relate to theirs — two types of knowledge that are extraordinarily difficult to develop on the Internet, quickly.

What’s to be done? First, those who design the conditions under which the networked press works — regulators, publishers, funders, hackers — might use these ideas of silence, timing, and pragmatism as starting points for policymaking and design. What would it mean to create breaking news environments that thoughtfully represented the absence of reporting, that structured news rhythms according to the impact reports might have at different times, that let some reports earn attention later and not now, that gave people (in real time) a sense of how their tweets and traces were impacting news coverage?

Second, those who publish in networked press environments might consider announcing why they are silent in particular moments, on particular topics. Imagine if CNN had told its viewers “we’re speculating without understanding impact, so we’re going to return to regular programming for a while and come back when there’s something meaningful to say.” Or suppose people following the Boston Police Scanner had tweeted “not sure what I’m hearing or transcribing so I’m ignoring the scanner until things get clearer” — and then they stopped being counted as a scanner listener.

Indeed, in an era of consumer surveillance and big data biases, users might consider the meaning of their presence in particular environments — what it means to watch. Why did so many people tune into the Boston Police Department’s scanner, how was their presence counted and interpreted, and might they have performed a better civic duty by not adding to the scanner’s spectacle, pointing their browsers — and attention — elsewhere? There is certainly value in public oversight of law enforcement but, if you listened to the scanner, why did you do so? Did the scanner become a news beat of its own because so many people were listening, and did news organizations report how they did because so many people were lingering on their feeds?

Finally, some may suggest that news organizations should be more transparent, letting audiences see their internal reporting and editorial decision making during breaking news events. As an educational goal, this has real value since audiences may better appreciate how difficult it is to make quick news judgments. But given the risks of transparency (of not understanding what’s made visible) and its sometimes questionable value in time-sensitive contexts, I suspect that a better, more systemic approach would be to figure out how to trust the networked press when it’s not speaking. Such trust may give silences the time they need to be meaningful.

During breaking news — when events are happening now, when people are competing to be first and most visible, when the scanner is filled with choppy audio, and when crowdsourcing is immature — the networked press might pause and ask itself “what if the version of the truth I’m about to say is taken to be true?” In these moments, pausing, listening, observing, and thinking is not civic inaction — rather, it is a different, less observable type of participation that needs to be better understood, valued, and made more visible.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone should ask permission to speak, or that speech should be technologically delayed, buffered, or censored. Rather, I’m imagining what the networked press might look like if people engaged in empathy and foresight before speaking during breaking news situations, making silences meaningful amidst unfettered self-expression. What would this press look like, and how might we design it? It certainly takes courage to speak — but it takes a different kind of courage to be silent, to listen, to trust, and speak when the time is right.

Mike Ananny is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg, where he researches the public significance of systems for networked journalism. He is also a faculty associate with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, holds a Ph.D. in communication from Stanford, a master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab, and a bachelor’s from the University of Toronto.

Photo by Anders Printz used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. Thanks to Professor Ted Glasser for this idea and phrasing. []
POSTED     April 23, 2013, 3:05 p.m.
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