Getting the news

My Facebook news feed usually contains links to prominent news stories, because one or more of my online acquaintances share the latest information. I’ve especially appreciated news of the revolts in the Arab world, which has been conveyed rapidly by the anonymous volunteers at We are all Khaled Said and also through their Facebook page and Twitter stream.

The New York Times seems like a magazine these days. I no longer rely on it or BBC News for information, as I did in past decades. Google News has been my browser’s homepage for many years. Headlines from around the world are displayed every time I open the browser window.

A few days ago, Pew released its annual report, “The State of the News Media 2011,” announcing what we already knew—that, for Americans, the web has become a more common source of news than newspapers, though television remains the most popular channel.

What’s your primary source of news these days?

4 Replies to “Getting the news”

  1. Hiya Robin, I know you’re no fan of Twitter but I find the one thing it does well is deliver news headlines, quickly. It has largely replaced RSS feeds for me. I have a variety of news outlets in my feed (one fewer than a month ago, when the Wall Street Journal angered me by mentioning Charlie Sheen one too many times).

    I had dismissed Google News years ago, in its infancy, when it seemed to be an aggregator solely of third-tier and third-world outlets. Now I’ve just looked and it has all the usual large Western MSM suspects, which is frankly both good and bad.

    I’ve just come home to a fishwrap NYT on my doorstep, and after reading the UK dailies for a couple of weeks, the difference in tone is striking. It’s nothing I can quite put my finger on, but I’ve not held the NYT in quite the same regard lately as it has drifted closer to a “state media outlet,” actively delaying and suppressing news at the request of the government for Important National Security Reasons. Which seems reasonable on its surface — who wants to be responsible for endangering lives? — but then where, really, is the line between the NYT and Pravda?

    Facebook feeds do bring me news, and I read the headlines that come through, but I never click through the links for privacy reasons. Every click on a Facebook link goes into your profile, and if once I thought Google was the NSA, now I think it would be child’s play to collect the political leanings of every Facebook citizen simply by mining link click-throughs. Twitter hasn’t got such issues; the same link is broadcast to everyone, and mining the click-throughs would require IP scraping, which is a whole other level of effort.

    I could use Google News safely since I haven’t got a Google profile and so don’t retain Google cookies. But if I had one, I’d be as afraid of Google News as I am of Facebook feeds.

    Paranoid much? Yes, actually…

  2. Hi, Mike:

    I appreciate your perspective. It differs significantly from mine with regard to concern for privacy and efforts at filtering (or customizing).

    I suppose I ought to be alarmed by the prospect that a political party might customize a candidate willing to tell me the lies I need to hear based on my browsing history.

    HINT for data miners: I just clicked through to “Thinking about retiring in 2011? Worst places to do it include California.”

    Ouch! Turns out you and I are in two of the worst states. Who didn’t know that already?

    When it comes to filtering information, we agree on one thing: we don’t want a publisher or broadcaster with a hidden agenda to do it for us. Still, I don’t see how you can discern from 140 characters how reliable the source of a tweet is. You know I’m no fan of pseudonyms and anonymous sources, and on Twitter there are many. However, if you’re talking about the aggregate—i.e., the trending topics on Twitter—or you’re following only the Twitter sources you consider reliable, then I suppose I understand the value of it.

    There will always be tension between the public’s need or right to know and the individual’s entitlement to privacy or safety. It’s a classic dilemma. Journalists tend to become weary and let go of their moral standards when faced with relentless deadlines and pressure to maintain an audience or readership. Now that anyone can report news widely using the Internet, the journalist’s classic dilemma has become anyone’s and everyone’s. Does that mean we won’t be able to hide anything in the future, so we’ll stop trying (and cease doing things that need to be hidden)? Or does it mean some people will retreat to impenetrable privacy fortress cults? I predict both. (laughing)

  3. In re: “I don’t see how you can discern from 140 characters how reliable the source of a tweet is” — you absolutely cannot. Twitter is 99.999% blather.

    I use it the way I used RSS feeds before: I subscribe to a very small number of news sources that I consider reliable — currently about half a dozen. This means that I’m subject to their filters of what’s news, but having multiple sources — and having them intermixed in real time, rather than having to actively look at each feed — works surprisingly well.

    To this, I add a very small number of other people who retweet interesting things. I use a special Twitter client that unspins all those “bit.ly” shortened links so that I can see if I think the source is worth viewing or not before I click through.

    As for not doing anything that needs to be hidden, the trouble is that “what needs to be hidden” is a moving target. I, for example, considering “viewing Al-Jazeera” to be something I would rather not have as part of my permanent record, just in case this information is used to decide who does and doesn’t merit an FBI file. But this is what I can envision *now*. Things like 9/11 can happen that can cause the state to quickly change the kinds of activities that are considered suspicious.

    Using cash to buy a plane ticket, for example, is something I would never do now, even if the plane ticket was a hundred bucks and I had two hundred in my pocket. This is now considered suspicious behavior, but it wasn’t before 9/11. In today’s digital society, innocuous activities can be rebranded as suspicious, and then data mined retroactively to find people who engaged in that behavior even before it was considered suspicious.

    Google’s Marissa Mayer likes to claim that credit card transaction histories are so data-rich that they can predict divorces with 98% accuracy, two years ahead of time. She’s made this claim twice; an original source eludes me and I think the specific claim is just puffery. The general trend, though, is something both the state and I believe: Past behavior can be used to predict future results. The difference is that now the state can go back as far as it wants in looking for behavior that they’ve newly branded as suspicious.

    In the next major conflict directly involving the US, the state won’t be able to round up all Japanese people and stuff them into internment camps. It won’t feel that it needs to. It will just decide which places are considered hotbeds of the enemy and round up anyone who has shown unusual interest in that area, based on travel and purchase records.

    Certainly today we think that threat will be Muslim in nature, and as a result, clicking too many times on Al-Jazeera links might be hazardous to your freedom to travel. But by definition, the next unexpected strike will be of unimaginable origin, just as the lost item by definition is found in the last place you look. It’s insufficient to know what needs to be hidden now. The important thing is to know what will ever need to be hidden.

    If the next Pentagon bomb comes from an Ohio literary agent, you and I will both be carted off quite quickly.

  4. I hear you. Today, we’re relatively safe from governmental intrusion in the US, but that’s liable to change rapidly, as history has shown. Then outspoken younger women, for example, could be harassed with virginity testing, the likes of which dissidents in Egypt have reportedly been subjected to lately.

    Your defensive posture and my apparently reckless one probably reflect our personality traits and heritage. I’m more willing to be on the offense—that is, both more aggressive and more subversive—than you are, because I’m responsible for no one but myself at this age. But when our backs are against the wall, I still want you on my team. Make no mistake about that! (laughing) You’ll be the one running the proxy server.

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