One of the most frustrating experiences I have while reading or listening to the news is that there’s too often a complete lack of context about whatever story is being shared. This is true in many instances but most notably in instances where the story is clearly resulting from either a trend someone has decided to call out or where a press release has offered some new data point that’s latched on to.
Some recent stories offer examples of cases of where tieing *this* story into what else is known would create much more value for the reader, cut down the hyperbole or strengthen the point being made.
Go Beyond the Single Issue
Example #1: A story in The New York Times talks about the role of artificial intelligence in the fashion industry, both on the design side and the retail buying side. It’s an interesting story on its own but it could have been stronger if it had connected the dots between the examples shared here and 1) How AI is increasingly eliminating jobs, which will have long-term repercussions on the economy and 2) How AI might tie in to the “fast fashion” trend that’s been dominating the industry for the last several years. Also, are there any instances where the efficiencies resulting from AI might reduce the massive waste problem the fashion industry suffers from?
Example #2: The latest case of the media’s obsession with how strange and different Millennials are came in the wake of a report that those in that age group – roughly 22-37 years old – are tipping less than other demographics. While Tim Carmen at the Chicago Tribune goes a bit more in-depth than others who covered the study, he still misses a big point: Comparing the tipping habits (or any other behavior) of 25 year olds to those who are 45 or 65 is fundamentally flawed.
A more accurate snapshot would result from looking at whether what 25 year olds today is different or not from what 25 year olds were doing in 1998, 1978 or 1958. If the source study doesn’t mention that, call it out or do your own research into the topic and include it in the story.
Example #3: This recap of how employees at tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others are pressuring their employers to not aid unethical government initiatives or actively invade people’s privacy does a good job of tying that discontent to how CEOs have opted against active engagement with the current regime.
It could have gone several steps further, though, and added in data from any of a number of recent surveys showing young workers in particular are seeking to work for or do business with companies that actively and publicly profess the same values. Also useful would have been information around how, despite a tight labor market seemingly giving employees more leverage to walk away, many still feel “job lock” and can’t, for any of a number of reasons, simply leave their jobs for philosophical reasons.
Blogging Was Meant to Correct This
One of the key value propositions offered when blogging and self-publishing emerged was that it was perfectly designed to offer just this sort of additional context by connecting the story to some level of the bigger picture. Unfortunately a few things seem to have happened.
First, journalists didn’t pick up on that trend, steadfastly sticking to the model already in place. If this started out as stubbornness or unwillingness, the problem only became worse as outlets began hemorrhaging staff as ad revenue dried up. Veteran journalists with that kind of institutional knowledge were gone and the pressures on those remaining amped up to the point where they simply may not have the time to do additional digging.
Second, the incentives for providing a more nuanced take on the news were all but completely removed. The priority was just to get the story up and out so that your outlet didn’t not publish the same story – highlighting the same elements – as competitors. If everyone else is offering a superficial take on Millennial tipping habits the odds are low that readers are going to spend more time with your deeper dive and then subscribe because they appreciate that kind of nuance.
Third, blogging evolved, and not in a good way, as social networks became everyone’s favorite hangout instead of their RSS reader.
It’s a shame, because by putting context on the shoulders of the reader, media is abdicating a fundamental role and responsibility. How are we supposed to avoid the mistakes of the past if we’re not reminded of them? When every press release or trend piece is presented free of background and context everything is new, even if the exact same thing was tried before only to be pushed aside. The reader can’t remember everything and doesn’t always have the same background those in the media have, so adding that extra layer of information is very much in the public interest.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.