Skip to main content

Oil well crisis meet filter failure (an essay on the failing of MSM)

By May 10, 2010websites

Screen shot 2010-05-10 at 3.27.09 PM  I spend a lot of time in online communities, more so than the average bear.  I use Twitter, RSS feeds, Google Groups and other tools to keep up with what's going on.  On a typical day not much is going on, other than Hollywood trivia.

But whenever something important happens I tap into my cyber-powered ham radio.  I did this during Katrina to some extent, but social media tools were less robust then.  Hurricane Gustav was when I realized the true power of Twitter. Instead of sitting by the radio waiting patiently for drips and drabs of real news (buried between hours of inane speculation), I followed a select group of folks who were consolidating the drips and drabs from pretty much every MSM source. More than that, however, they were adding their own first hand observations, which in most cases were more helpful than anything the MSM could compile.

I learned then that the MSM ('mainstream media' for those of you that don't know this acronym) takes too long to gather information and then spit it back out. The MSM's production cycle doesn't matter so much when they are gathering the usual fare of pablum. But a slow production cycle does matter in a time of crisis. The MSM, of course, speeds up its production in times of crisis. But they still can't go as fast as Twitter or the sources that I typically follow.

Remember the Iranian election and how Twitter did a better job of covering it than CNN (which missed the initial breaking news because it happened on a weekend)? No, well the Internet remembers.

Anyway, we've got another crisis looming here in Louisiana and in the neighboring Gulf states. The BP oil mess is threatening our coast, and many people are trying to fix the problem. Many other people are trying to understand the likelihood that BP's efforts will succeed. The MSM has cranked up its coverage, but as usual, it's hopelessly behind the curve.

If you want to know what's going on you can read the Times Picayune accounts, which sometimes have some interesting graphics but for the most part are pretty sparse and slow to appear. Or you can do something better. My friend Al Robert has a great Twitter feed he's put together and so if you don't use Twitter much that's a quick way to get more than your MDR of oilspill news. Al pointed out to me that the Mobile, Alabama paper has a great Twitter feed that's on top of the situation much better than the Times Picayune.  So I guess I should clarify that not all MSM is hopelessly lost in cyberspace.

Speaking of MSM, my friend Douglass McCollam, a freelance writer, had a great article in the Wall St. Journal last Saturday. It's called 'The Big Slick and The Big Easy.' I can't link to a full version of the article because the Wall St. Journal is not into making it easy for people to share links to their online articles. But you can find the full version if you google 'McCollam' and 'Big slick big easy' and then click on the top link that Google serves up. If that's too much trouble for you, believe me I understand. 

Maybe one day the Wall St. Journal will understand too.

Anyway, we were talking about finding better sources than the MSM. One of my treasured sources (again recommended by Al Robert) is a Google Group of local bloggers. One of the bloggers is an engineer and has been patiently explaining what is likely going on based on his review of various sources, as filtered through his much more knowledgeable brain. For example, he pointed to this article written by a “retired manager for an offshore underwater service company” that seems informative and balanced.

If you email me I'll be happy to let you know how to find that Google Group. I'm pretty sure that most people who are interested and read this blog have already found it and subscribed. And lots of folks won't care. But I'd like to have some idea of who does care, and that's why I don't want to just post it here for the world (and spammers) to see.

As Clay Shirky poignantly observed we don't have an 'information overload' problem; we have a 'filter failure' problem. The MSM used to be our trusted filters, but they abandoned their sacred duty —first by moving out of 'pure news reporting' to get into the 'infotainment' business, and, second, by falling behind in basic news gathering (mostly out of fear of embracing social media). The MSM now takes way too long to get the story out. And they cut corners by presenting extremists on two sides to argue back and forth, portraying this to their hapless audience as a 'balanced account. However, balancing one extreme with another is not 'effective news gathering.' It's laziness.  

The MSM argues that 'people just want the news to be free.'  True, but they also want it to be fast and useful. Charge too much for online content if you want, but that will just drive away readers. If you want to lure them back figure out how to do a better job of gathering and distributing information in the online world. Some amateurs have figured it out.  Why can't more so-called 'experts'?

Who knows, but it doesn't matter right now.

Look here's the most important thing you need to know: if you want truly want to be informed you're going to have to find some new filters. The old ones broke a long time ago. The BP well might be abated if they get a containment dome in place or drill a relief wall, but the MSM situation is much more difficult to remedy. Mostly because no one in charge at the major MSM institutions seems to recognize how to address their real problem.

P.S. If you're a practicing lawyer, check out this Law Practice Assessment . After answering a few questions, you'll get detailed recommendations for improving five key areas of your practice.


  • Interesting read. Where are your sources of finding good Twitter feeds or RSS feeds?

  • FP says:

    Here a biologist who would like to learn about better sources of information:

    “Two examples: Every day, Wildlife and Fisheries releases updates of state and federal waters closed to fishing, but they will not say whether oil or dispersants have been detected in closed areas. Yesterday, on Garland Robinette’s WWL radio show, Capt. Ed Stanton of the Coast Guard went into great detail about the types of planes being used to spray dispersants, but it wasn’t until I called and asked that he would say how much had been used. The figure he cited, 300,000 gallons, was later disputed by a caller who quoted an EPA source who’d used the number 500,000 gallons. The frustrating thing is that both numbers could be correct, as Capt. Stanton didn’t specify whether the 300,000 gallons were air-sprayed, underwater-deployed or both.

    In this environment, those of us seeking to get a realistic understanding of what’s happening in our aquatic back yard yearn for experts we can talk with, whom we trust to give us the facts as they know them. Yesterday, I realized I knew one…” There is more:

Skip to content