In praise of segregation

With a title like that, I wonder what kind of stumble traffic I’m going to get?


I speak, of course, not of the segregation of people by gender or race, but rather the segregation of content, of information.


One of the things that is often praised about this whole web 2.0 doolie is that the technology know exists to divorce content from form. RSS, third-party Twitter clients – these things exist because we can remove content from its original format and share it more easily. I can read posts from hundreds of blogs every day without ever visiting any of them. It’s bloody convenient, to say the least.


I come from a background in the (not yet as dead as some would suggest) medium of the printed newspaper. There, the relationship between the information and the format smacks you in the head with a hammer. This news is the most important news because it’s at the top of the page. This news is less important because it’s much shorter and is buried in a sidebar on page D17.


You can see the flaws with this. What if that shorter, buried sidebar on D17 is more relevant to me than the top of A1 story the editors deemed to be the story of the day? This is where 2.0 technologies come in handy.


I can set a Google Alert for the topic covered in the D17 sidebar and, presto, the story is delivered in digest form in my morning email. The newspaper was kind enough to digitize its content, syndicate it with RSS and make it available all over the internet. Google News’ keyword algorithms detected it and automatically delivered it to me. Woot for the interweb.


But here’s the thing. Form? It matters sometimes.


The debate over whether we should be fed the news we want or the news we need is a debate for another time. However, newspaper form dictates more than just the relative importance (according to the editorial staff) of each story. It also establishes the kind of content you are reading.


When a newspaper wants me to know I’m reading an opinion or commentary piece, it tells me in any number of ways: a headshot of the author, a short blurb introducing (or concluding) the piece telling me their organizational affiliation, and, perhaps most importantly, a big old banner across the top proclaiming “Commentary” or “Viewpoint” or some other easily-digestible tag that tells the reader this is one person’s take on an issue.


If a newspaper runs paid content, it tells me as much by branding the top of the page “advertisement” or, less blatantly, “paid content” or “advertorial.”


It’s not a foolproof method but it is pretty good.


Form helps readers understand the type of content they are reading in less objective ways too. If I pick up a mimeographed letter-sized sheet of paper crammed with massive blocks of 8 point Times New Roman type, I will treat the content much differently than if I pick up a copy of the Globe and Mail from a newsstand.


In a less extreme example, I treat information found in a tabloid-style newspaper like those of the Sun Media chain differently than I treat information found in a CanWest paper. I understand the inherent bias and the difference in news priorities. It doesn’t make any paper less relevant or trustworthy than another but it helps me understand the lenses through which the content has been filtered.


Again, this isn’t foolproof. Media literacy (and the related lack of critical thought applied by many people to the information they digest) is lacking in modern society. But at least the standards of the printed page give us a fighting chance.


Google’s daily email alerts (and their brethren in various forms of blog search)? Less so, it would seem.


My Google Alerts make no distinction between a hit in the New York Times and a hit on Big Bill’s Bumpkin Blog. An opinion piece merits the same treatment as a hard news story; a press release gets the same play as a first-person observation piece.


It’s not that any of these hits doesn’t merit consideration. One of the great things about the democratization of publishing is that people whose viewpoints are overlooked have an outlet. But treating every viewpoint the same way is counterproductive.


There’s a reason that newspapers are, more or less, trusted entities; (most) journalists are trained professionals who work to present information in a (mostly) objective way. A citizen journalist or blogger can certainly add important elements that better my understanding of the bigger picture but what they present has to be processed and considered in a different way.


Budding journalists are (or should be) taught to consider the source. This is a cardinal rule when gathering information and it applies far beyond the limited scope of a journalism classroom. It doesn’t mean that one should dismiss or ignore information based solely on its source; it just means that the source must be considered. It has to be a filter.


As technology allows us to divorce form from content, as aggregators and syndication flourish, it gets harder and harder to consider the source. This should worry those who think media literacy is important.


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