Memory and Media: How Today's Media Asks Us to Both Pay Attention and Forget Everything

At the heart of the collapse of conventional journalism is a paradox involving memory—a paradox U.S. major media continues to refuse to acknowledge, to its detriment.

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{Note: This and future Proof essays on journalism in the digital age are inspired by my ongoing work on Citizen Journalist, a journalism textbook to be published by Macmillan in 2022.}

The memory of the internet is limitless and eternal. And because anyone with internet access can access the memory of the internet at any time, humans’ need for steel-trap memories is now exponentially diminished from at any other time in human history. We can just borrow the internet’s memory whenever we need to do so—which is often.

This sea change in how our memories are constructed and powered presents a crisis for news media that is unique to the digital age. And unfortunately, media’s refusal to face this crisis is deeply destructive. The situation is a particularly acute one for media organizations of significant size, as it’s within such entities that elective administrative divisions make it inevitable that on occasion the right hand will have no idea what the left hand is doing. For instance, outlets with artificial bureaucratic dividers between print and online operations, or online and TV operations; outlets whose newsroom is divided into individuated beats, each with their own editors, producers, and other staffing overlays; and outlets with discretely branded sub-operations (e.g., a blog or newsletter) may struggle to reproduce critical reporting in all subunits of the outlet such that no component of the operation is ever contradicting the work of any other.

Consider this New York Times article from February 17, in which the Times informs its readers that the accurate COVID-19 death toll in the United States as of that date was likely—if the so-called “undercount” is included—571,000, meaning that on February 22, the day news outlets around the country reported that America had reached the 500,000-death milestone, the actual death toll in the U.S. was, using a combination of New York Times and Worldometers data, approximately 584,000. Any readers of the Times story linked to above who also tracked daily death-toll data on Worldometers would, on February 22, have rightly treated that 584,000 figure as an established fact.

So how did such news consumers react to the wall-to-wall coverage of America hitting the 500,000 milestone on February 22? And more to the point, how should they have responded to the New York Times itself repeating the claim that 500,000 people had died as of that date? Neither the Times nor any other major-media outlet treated the 500,000 figure as metaphorical, an approximation, or incomplete; Americans were told that on February 22 the nation was mourning a half million dead from COVID-19—full stop.

What the Times wanted and needed its consumers to do on February 17 was to read the careful undercount analysis it published that day and then immediately forget it.

Indeed, the credibility of the newspaper’s future reporting depended on that forgetting.

The problem, of course, is that today’s highly engaged news readers, even if they were likely to forget (or never see in the first instance) what the Times reported on February 17, would be unlikely to remain in such a state of forgetfulness after the next time they logged on to social media. Why? Because today’s social media users engage in and witness more curatorial journalism, news aggregation, fact-checking, and media criticism—to name just a few metajournalistic genres of journalism—than ever before. In fact, we might say that one of the most generative components of social media generally and social news websites like Twitter specifically is that they have become, over time, the very best instruments for amplifying major-media reporting. While of course that amplification is at times selective, it is unlikely to miss either a stunning February 17 New York Times investigative report or an equally startling one days later.

What this situation—replicated hundreds of times a day on sites like Twitter, and with respect to potentially contradictory or merely confusing cross-reporting by countless outlets besides the Times—tells us is that “fake news” may not be the biggest problem now facing major media, even if it would be compellingly aggrandizing to major media were that in fact the case. Rather, large-scale print, TV, and online news organizations may face the greatest reckoning (and threat to their reputation, and thus to their share of the nation’s audience) from exactly the opposite phenomenon: extremely well-informed news consumers who either can themselves catch the contradictions in the media they consume or will invariably have their attention drawn to such contradictions by media interlocutors they encounter on social media and elsewhere.

So far, American media’s only proposed solution to the problem described above has been to try to discredit anyone on social media who functions as a metajournalistic interlocutor for news consumers. Needless to say, this dubiously ethical short-term fix has done very little to ease the natural pressures building between news organizations and their consumers.

So what’s the solution here? Well, it’s likely there isn’t a simple or easy one. But here’s a good start: news organizations should develop flagging systems that denominate certain news reports as institution-wide markers—that is, reports that every reporter or columnist or editor or producer working within the relevant sub-field of news at that organization would as part of their employment be expected to have internalized.

Such a system, which explicitly acknowledges that certain investigative reports include discoveries that must be integrated into future reporting at a given media institution, would function as a consensus reality entrenched at the heart of the institution. In this time of fractured and fracturing realities, our media needs to aggressively push back against the dissolution of meaning by acknowledging that complex consensus realities no longer naturally arise, nor can conventional reporting methods and protocols ensure them; they must be orchestrated, tended to, and guarded. The alternative—which is what we’re living with now, to the grave detriment of major media and its consumer base—is a circumstance in which conflicting or simply mutually jarring reports by a single media outlet can cause reality schisms both within the institution and within the confidence matrix of its consumer base. If conventional media outlets wish to survive the digital age, and indeed if journalism wishes to survive the digital age as a professionalized and institutionalized endeavor rather than a decentralized and independent one, it will institute some kind of reform program along these lines.

{Note: A separate problem, one unsolved by the proposal above, is the persistent schisming of reality as between media outlets. The solution to this even more entrenched harm is increased cross-brand collaboration within major-media reporting, perhaps even the creation of informal media “pods” or “bubbles” in which the anti-cross-reporting measures described above are executed at the level of the pod or bubble rather than the discrete media brand. Certainly, most news organizations already have a list of trusted peers whose reporting they are willing to re-report before they have confirmed it themselves; this already gives us a good idea of which media entities might be willing to join the sort of informal news consortium I describe here.}

So what does all this mean for the future of conventional journalism? Well, it means that conventional journalists and the organizations they work for must begin to distinguish between two different concepts: digital publication and digital writing.

In my digital writing–oriented workshop at University of New Hampshire, I note that the former term simply denotes the locale in which a given piece of writing will appear upon publication, while the latter circumscribes the ways in which the digital sphere can (and often must) become an indelible component of our writing process. In major-media investigative reporting, which increasingly is not just digitally published but conceived of in the first instance with the digital sphere in mind, understanding and appreciating the difference between digital publication and digital writing means having sufficient rhetorical awareness to acknowledge that digital news consumers have different capacities and reading tendencies than their print-only predecessors.

While media may wish to flatter itself in thinking that these capacities and tendencies represent a step backward from the halcyon days of growing newspaper readerships, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s news consumers are, as a broad class, more savvy, more widely read, better prepared, more circumspect, and more interested in fact-checking and cross-referencing Old Media scions than ever before.

While at times readers’ caution is misdirected or over-active—leading certain news consumers to opt for “fake news” over careful reporting—far more frequently the circumspection of today’s news consumers is warranted. It catches contradictions, paradoxes, and problematic juxtapositions that major media is unwilling to confront because amending internal administrative structures in the midst of conventional journalism’s popularity collapsing can feel like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In reality, a declining faith in major-media reporting is an addressable ill; it merely requires that institutions as resistant to course correction as the Titanic was stop asking their consumers to at once remember everything and forget everything—and accept that, in the digital age, everything will eventually be recorded, remembered, and returned to public view, for better or worse.