Information Overload

Information overload isn’t new. The number of different media channels and options within those channels continues to grow. Coverage within media vehicles is expanding quickly as well. Witness CBS’ recent announcement to expand online coverage. News anchors are writing blogs, RSS (define) puts limitless news sources at your fingertips, and so on. Information is consumed at breakneck speeds. At what point do consumers buckle under too much information?

For the most part, consumers’ appetite for information seems insatiable. Mass-market content is expanding. Fragmented, more specialized channels are making huge gains in popularity.

Blogs and RSS exemplify how new digital technologies magnify the problem. One makes it easy for anyone to create content online; the other makes immersing yourself in information easier. It seems only natural people would no longer trust a single news source. They look at clusters of media channels to get multiple perspectives.

On September 11, my wife and I sat glued to the TV, flipping around the major networks, CNN, and MSNBC. We pounded away on my laptop, desperate for as much information as we could get our hands on.

In the weeks that followed, the pattern continued. I broadened my usual set of daily news sites and looked at a ton of different sources. After a while, I became frustrated as I noticed more and more contradictory information. It wasn’t even differences of opinions; facts contradicted each other.

One reason consumers go after multiple sources is to fact-check them against one another. But whom do you trust? No one is accurate all the time, particularly in a situation like September 11. Events are far too chaotic, and information comes too fast for all to process it accurately.

I finally got on board with RSS. I hooked up a bunch of feeds and have browsed them every day. Aggregation of information from disparate sources into a single reader is great; it saves a ton of time. Again, I find different sources contradict each other. How do I know which to trust? I don’t have time to track down other sources to verify what I read. Ironically, a technology meant to simplify information-gathering and save time instead contributes to and magnifies information overload.

I once heard Peter Jennings vent frustration with modern journalism. He felt there was too much opinion, even in what was supposed to be unbiased, straight news. He said journalists too often color the news with their own viewpoint. It does seems as if many news outlets, in the race to get a story out first, report incomplete stories or unconfirmed facts much more often than they used to. This doubtless leads to consumer skepticism and drives us to more research.

It’s a vicious cycle: You’re overloaded with information so you want to trust one news source. But the way the information is presented and past experience with the news outlet drives you to seek confirmation.

How long will the media-consuming public be able to keep up? At some point, busy people must cut out something. There’s not enough time in the day to constantly keep up with all this information.

It’ll be interesting to watch this trend unfold. It’s not just about online consumer behavior, which is obviously important for us all to understand. It’s truly a shift in the way our society consumes news media.

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