Where does news come from?

Time after time again, people who want to save newspapers claim that newspapers are the primary source of news. But is their claim actually founded on anything other than self-importance?

I love newspapers. I want them to survive, in some form, but it’s important to investigate where the truth in one of the linchpins of the “newspapers need to survive argument” comes from.

Tom Rosenstiel explained this before the Joint Economic Committee hearing on “The Future of Newspapers: The Impact on the Economy and Democracy,” on September 24, 2009:

In every community in America I have studied in 26 years as a press critic, the newspaper in town has more boots on the ground–more reporters and editors–than anyone else–usually than all others combined. A good deal of what is carried on radio, television, cable and wire services comes from newspaper newsrooms. These media then disseminate it to broader audiences.

When we imagine the news ecosystem in the 21st century, the newspaper is still the largest originating, gathering source.

Rosenstiel’s not the only one to make the claim. It’s a common one. John Carroll used to say that 80 percent of news came from newspapers. Len Downie and Robert Kaiser similarly claimed that newspapers were the originators of most content for most broadcast and cable news. And many studies of online blogs show that much of the linking originates from mainstream media, often newspapers.

But are newspapers where it all begins? In an online world, that’s only sort of true.

A study coming out of USC Annenberg of 250 news websites looks at where these sites are bringing information from – whether they are citing the AP or citing their own journalists. Though the analysis isn’t complete yet, initial results seem to suggest that wire services are providing the bulk of news online.

The study, as explained by Annenberg doctoral candidate and researcher Matthew Weber, takes a systems approach. This means that the researchers were taking a look at who was providing information for the network of news organizations, who was doing the filtering for the news organizations, who was collecting the information and from where – and how it was being passed on.

“If you take a systems approach to the news industry, the people who are providing the raw material are predominantly wire services,” he said.

Weber did find that newspapers still are where consumers make their first stop. And while they add their own content, newspapers are also acting as filters – were also bringing in articles from the AP, Reuters, AFP and the like.

“The ‘system’ start with the wires, and ends with the aggregators. Newspapers are jammed in the middle, competing for air,” Weber explained via e-mail.

But when it comes down to who is creating the content for news sites, the organizations providing information were “almost exclusively wire services,” according to Weber.

So wires, in this case, seem to be increasing importance in the news architecture of the online world – and newspapers aren’t the first stop that they used to be, though they do help sort information.

But in some sense, wires have always played an important role that has often been ignored by those who like to say that newspapers have set the news agenda and uncovered the most important stories.

When I was an intern covering cops at the Chicago Tribune in 2003, often my assignment came not from the scanners but from the now-defunct City News Service, a wire service owned by Tribune Co. that sold breaking news to the highest bidder in the local market. The City News Service in Los Angeles, not owned by Tribune, still serves a similar purpose.

Even if we disregard these pre-Internet wires that only operated in a handful of cities, it’s still unfair to say that newspapers set the agenda for the rest of the media in a city. Certainly newspapers often did the rigorous work of providing a detailed account which was then recycled on local news, but television news has never aspired to be anything but a recycling of newspaper headlines even in its golden era.

Cronkite saw his viewers still reading a paper, and today, local news also doesn’t kid itself about being entertainment. The two mediums work more complementary than as leader and follower than we might hope to suggest in our case for news survival.

But there’s a whole other element to where news comes from that has also been ignored in an online context – the world of blogs and online communities – and how this then sets an agenda for newspapers to follow.

Chris W. Anderson, a Nieman blogger and assistant professor at the College of Staten Island – CUNY, has research that suggests that it’s important to look not just at newspapers but at the whole news ecosystem- which includes everything from news to activist communities.

Anderson doesn’t question the macro-level assumption that journalists report and bloggers comment. But he notes that it’s a little more complicated when you look more closely at specific news instances.

Calling them news “blips,” Anderson said, “You’ll have an early period that most journalists wouldn’t call reporting where information will be released in niche spheres of the blogosphere.”

One example he gave was of reports of activists arrests. But it wasn’t that reporters were reading these activist blogs that this news happened to make it into the mainstream newspaper or news media. Instead, journalists got their tips from “being good reporters,” taking cues in the traditional way, perhaps from police or press releases or shoe-leather reporting.

From his observations at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, Anderson said, “It’s a misnomer to think journalists are just sitting around reading blogs.”

But once journalists did report on these news blips, these blips were then circulated into the larger blogosphere. But the blips required a certain level of bubbling up to the surface from the niche level of social media, something that happened in traditional ways.

Twitter might make a good case of how newspapers aren’t the first and only source of news, especially on a hyperlocal level. Newspapers may be hoping to compete on the hyperlocal, but this strategy may be questionable especially in cities with actively wired bloggers and tweeters who may have the first claim on news.

My old neighborhood in LA is a Twitter neighborhood. Local stores and restaurants were on Twitter, as are many residents and more active bloggers. We all routinely kept the neighborhood hashtag #DTLA in our posts when commenting about our home. Sure, the bars marketed drink specials to us, but the #DTLA hashtag was the first source of news when the 2009 Lakers celebration got out of hand, then followed by TV and the LA Times. Twitter users provided great on-sight reportage of the Michael Jackson funeral at the Staples Center, often going beyond what mainstream media had to offer.

Did these events wind up back in the newspapers? Sure. But the most active concentration of rumors and new bits of information were coming from a niche community – in this case, the #DTLA one, and in Anderson’s case, the activist community.

Perhaps, instead of staking the claim for newspaper survival on the fact that newspapers provide the first stop of news and set our agenda for what it is we care to talk about, those making the case might start to make a more nuanced argument.

Maybe it’s not as compelling to say that newspapers are the great facilitators of democratic dialogue and discourse instead of the source of all that is news, but it seems to reflect the burgeoning reality of our digital era.

FOIA at 40: Can it still help the public examine its government?

The Freedom of Information Act turned 40 on July 4 of this year, a moment for both celebration and reflection among advocates for open government and press freedom. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sees plenty of cause for both reflection and redoubled effort to preserve the public’s right to know in our current political climate, nearly six years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

OJR spoke with Dalglish about the heightened concern she sees from both journalists and the public about the culture of secrecy that has pervaded many parts of our government, as well as the status of a proposed federal shield law for journalists and some bloggers and a bill that its advocates say would improve administration of freedom of information regulations.

The beginnings of RCFP’s “secrecy beat”

OJR: Even before attacks of September 11, the Bush administration displayed a rare penchant for secrecy.

Dalglish: Right. [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales, when he was the White House Counsel, tried to gut the Presidential Records Act [PRA], to essentially make it meaningless. There was the [former Attorney General John] Ashcroft memorandum interpreting the Freedom of Information Act. They were working on that well before 9/11. There was the Cheney energy task force meetings that they tried to put off-limits. They were pre-disposed to secrecy even before 9/11.

[Note: In June, 2007, the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform issued a report alleging that senior Administration officials might have violated the PRA by using e-mail addresses assigned by the Republican National Committee to conduct official government business.]

OJR: How did journalists react to that predisposition toward secrecy in the very beginning?

Dalglish: Indifferently.

OJR: Indifferently? They didn’t see it as a real problem?

Dalglish: No, they didn’t see it as a real problem. They were caught unawares and they always thought, “Oh, we’re the only ones who care about that. Journalists are the only ones who care about that, so why even bother to report it?”

OJR: After 9/11, at what point did journalists get concerned. Was it the passage of the PATRIOT ACT?

Dalglish: Well the PATRIOT ACT doesn’t have much to do with information policy. And quite honestly, from my perspective, many of the things in the PATRIOT ACT are absolutely fine and absolutely necessary.

There were a number of things that happened after 9/11 that did impact the right of the public to know what was going on, but it wasn’t necessarily the PATRIOT ACT. I can really only think of one major area of concern in the PATRIOT ACT, and that’s section 215, which said that you could try to get tangible business information from any entity, and then, the librarians and the bookstore owners went nuts.

And we found out from the Attorney General that they were convinced that despite the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 that said you could not execute a search warrant on a newsroom, that because 9/11 was so special that the PATRIOT ACT would allow those search warrants to be executed on newsrooms.

OJR: Has anybody tried to do that?

Dalglish: No, not that I’m aware of.

OJR: There was information that had previously been public that suddenly got taken off-line after 9/11.

Dalglish: Yes. And there were rules that were implemented, executive orders that were written, there was laws that Congress did pass. For example, the law that creates the Department of Homeland Security exempted DHS from portions of the Freedom of Information Act. [RCFP has a detailed chronology of US government secrecy measures between 9/11 and 2005.

OJR: What motivated the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press to start covering these attempts at secrecy as a distinct beat, with reports such as Homefront Confidential and your blog, Behind the Homefront?

Dalglish: The absolute certainty that the public wasn’t going to learn nearly as much information as they used to, and that this administration was intent on placing valuable information off-limits.

Growing public support for open government

OJR: Where are we now in the effort to balance the legitimate need for secrecy with the public’s right to know?

Dalglish: I think we’re starting to bounce back a little bit. I think Congress has finally woken up. I think the media have finally woken up. I think the public is kind of waking up. They’re asking very serious questions. I think the [Congressional mid-term] election in November [2006] was partly due to all of this stuff. People are going, “Okay, we gave you enough rope, and you hung yourselves. So know we’re gonna go in another direction.”

And I think the [June, 2007] Washington Post stories about Vice-President Cheney explain the passion for secrecy better than just about anything I’ve seen.

OJR: When you cite the Washington Post stories as a sign that the news media has awakened, are you saying that they haven’t been aggressive enough on these issues in the past?

Dalglish: No, there’s no question the press has not been aggressive enough on these issues. Many reporters have made the mistake of concluding the public doesn’t care about this stuff, and that it was quote-unquote inside baseball. But the public does care about this stuff.

And we’re starting to find out that yes, there is a need to keep some things secret. But when you keep some things secret with impunity, abuses of power occur.

OJR: What evidence do you have that there is widespread concern about this among the public?

Dalglish: I get letters; I get e-mails. Mostly, it’s what doesn’t happen. It used to be when I would go on television or on radio and whine about this, people would call in and say I was an unpatriotic jerk. Now, when I go on these TV shows or on these radio talk shows, people call in saying, “Oh thank God there are people like you! Where have you been?” It’s more of an attitude adjustment, rather than any concrete information I’ve been getting.

I’m not getting as many death threats, let me put it that way.

OJR: You were getting death threats before?

Dalglish: Oh, sure!

Current challenges facing journalists

OJR: How do you feel things stand legally in terms of civil liberties protections for reporters?

Dalglish: They’re chipping away in millions of tiny little ways. They’re trying to close down criminal prosecutions. They’re trying to keep us out of proceedings in Guantanamo. They’re trying to close down access to jurors. They’re trying to prevent us from finding out who it is we’ve kicked out of the country. The foreign nationals that we’ve deported because of some weird, wacky matrix system. They don’t want us to know anything about critical infrastructure, even to the point of ridiculous examples. They won’t even let you know — if somebody’s proposed to build a credit-card processing facility in Texas, and the local folks won’t even tell you what intersection it’s going on, because someone has told them that’s sensitive homeland security information. I mean there’s some really ridiculous things that are happening.

And, people are so worked up, and so frightened, that they’ve kind of let common sense fly out the window.

OJR: I recall that a few months after 9/11, I was teaching a computer-assisted reporting class, and we tried to get information on whether ground water had been contaminated around a particular plant. We couldn’t get the information, whereas it had been fairly easy to find that kind of thing out online before.

Dalglish: Yes, they took it down. They took a lot of that kind of information down, because, you know, a terrorist might use that to poison people! Well the same information a terrorist could use to do damage, citizens who live in that area might appreciate knowing so they can tell their children not to drink the ground water. It’s a total double-edged sword, and they’ve got to be so over-protective, that they’re not using common sense. How can you insist that the EPA clean up your ground water if you’re not allowed to know that it’s contaminated? It gets to be infuriating.

Legislative update

OJR: Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press devotes a lot of its resources to keeping track of shield laws, sunshine laws and the like. How do we stand with regard to that?

Dalglish: The [proposed Federal] shield law might move in the House fairly quickly. We’re having problems with some members of Congress who are concerned that journalists are going to protect leaked national security information. So that’s kind of a sticking point.

The Open Government Act, sponsored by [Patrick] Leahy (D-VT) and [John] Cornyn (R-TX) in the Senate, and by [Henry] Waxman (D-CA) and some others in the House, should be a no-brainer, but [Jon] Kyl (R-AZ) has put a hold on that, and he’s single-handedly blocking it.

OJR: The “secrecy Senator.”

Dalglish: Yes, the secrecy Senator.

OJR: Can you talk just a bit about the Open Government Act, which is designed to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act?

Dalglish: It doesn’t do anything, as far I’m concerned, that’s all that controversial or remarkable. It put things back the way they used to be as far as shifting in reimbursing people who have to sue the government. It doesn’t create any new information that’s off-limits. It creates some new tracking procedures, and puts some teeth into the enforcement of the act, and hopefully will make it work better, make it more user-friendly.

I don’t think there’s anything in the world that should hold this thing up. But they are so pre-occupied by immigration right now, that I don’t think anybody’s in the mood to tangle with Kyl right now. [This interview was conducted on June 26, 2007; the controversial immigration reform bill was defeated on June 28.]

What journalists and the public should do to protect the public right to know

OJR: What should journalists be doing right now with regard to Freedom of Information issues?

Dalglish: I think what journalists should be doing, quite frankly, is reading our website every single day. They should be paying attention to the sunshine in government initiative. They should be paying attention to Open the Government.org. They should be paying attention to the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government. And they should be getting active in these FOI-related journalism groups.

Just stay informed, and I personally don’t think that it is a conflict for journalists to take a political position on something that has to do with the need for government to inform its citizens. Now, if you’re covering a committee in Congress that’s considering amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, should you be up there testifying in favor of the Act? No. But, what you should be doing is supporting the non-profit organizations that are trying to speak up on your behalf, to ensure your ability to do your job.

OJR: Are we doing an adequate job of making the public aware of these issues at this point?

Dalglish: We’re doing better. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has been working very hard the last two or three years on Sunshine Week. It started with newspapers, it spread to online and its spread to broadcasting. In March, right around James Madison’s birthday, we try to convey information to the public about why it’s important to support open government. Why it’s important on both the state and the federal level, and I think that’s been a remarkably successful project.

OJR: You’ve been in your job at RCFP for seven years now. In 2010, when July 4 approaches, what do you hope you will see?

Dalglish: I hope to see that the Freedom of Information Act has been amended; I hope to see that we have a reporters’ privilege – a shield law. And I hope to see that various news organizations and the non-profits are up there pro-actively seeking things from Congress rather than acting defensively.

It feels relevant: biological tactility in news media

Thanks to the Internet, we know a lot more about how news is used. Traffic records and data analysis give us the “what,” “where” and “how” consumers take information from a website; we also know “when” it’s accessed and somewhat less about for how long. The “why,” however, is still largely a mystery. Nor do we know much about how the senses absorb online news, how the brain sifts and orders it and how it affects the body, moods, emotions and decisions.

What happens when users receive news? More to the point, why do Internet users not consume what is traditionally defined as news? Why do millions head to YouTube, MySpace and online games, including serious ones? Why to Petopia, Second Life or video blogs like Crooks and Liars?

If online journalists knew the answer, they might be offering more attractive and informative news sites. Neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists—only two of many disciplines that give us insights on how digital technology impacts the senses—have conducted recent research and crafted theories, many of them tentative, on how the brain reacts to information. (For a dated yet excellent overview, see “Nature’s Mind; The biological roots of thinking, emotions, sexuality, language and intelligence,” by Michael S. Gazzaniga, 1992.)

These findings can help us to understand how digital data is used—how the brain rejects or absorbs it, then meters it into the neural system. Researchers are looking at how online content can trigger emotions, including visceral ones, how the nervous and limbic systems, the reflexes, blood circulation and sexual organs all respond to the signs and icons of new media.

The latest research points to a general conclusion: online digital worlds like YouTube appeal to the whole body, from frontal lobe to the toes. This payoff from multimedia may be unique in communications history. The question is how can journalists put that understanding of a mind-body connection to good use.

But scientists have no monopoly on making sense of the rapid rise—the unprecedented global acceptance—of new media. A rich legacy of the study of theater, narrative and visual culture has already provided the groundwork for new media theory. An understanding of theories of art and art history and basic differences in presentation can help those who work in the digital world to know who they are and what traditions they draw from while engaging in the practice of digital convergence. In the words of one new media critic, Mark B. N Hansen at The University of Chicago, it enables us to grasp “the aesthetic newness” of digital media and “its resistance to capture by now dated, historical forms of art and media criticism.”

If a journalist deals with a 3D graphic, an immersive multimedia news environment or GIS mapping mash-p, he or she has reached fundamentally new territory. Hansen and others, drawing from scientific research, conclude that the way a person receives and absorbs mediated digital information is a mind-body process. And the online multimedia experience is more complete, more biologically compelling than previous forms of media, including cinema. As Hansen puts it, the new media experience is “qualitatively different from …the ‘verisimilitude’ and ‘illusion’ of the cinematic image.”

This also differentiates online news video from broadcast TV news practices, as journalists who work with online video photography have found through trial and error. This difference becomes more pronounced with the use of panoramic cameras and immersive perspectives.

But whiz-bang devices are only the experimental edge or mega-toys of the Internet. The medium’s unique tactile experience can easily be appreciated by clicking a mouse, tapping the keys or interacting with audio-visual displays. This is another world from turning pages or flipping through channels.

From a historical approach, the push to expand new media over the last decade to meet the demand of a voracious and adoptive audience can be looked at as the joining together of rival ways of creating illusions that have developed over many centuries.

For more detailed discussion of art and theater traditions, readers can go to the works of theorists such as Henri Bergson and Walter Benjamin. These trailblazers have helped today’s media critics conceive of a multimedia family tree that has two main branches: One starts with Greek drama and wends through Tudor theater and the rich tradition of outdoor spectacles and illusions that invite audience participation. The second branches off from Baroque theater into increasingly sophisticated indoor presentations aimed at passive audiences.

Both Greek amphitheaters and the open-air Tudor theaters of the 1590s are believed to have offered an intense and pleasurable communal experience. London’s theaters at Shakespeare’s time are considered to have been the most popular form of entertainment of that era, drawing people of every class to form enthusiastic and often rowdy crowds of up to 2,500. The Shakespearean-era theater experience had multiple layers, from the cerebral to the hair-raising. The narrative was propelled by magical effects – trap doors and winches, painted canvases, fake hangings and beheadings, fireworks, thunder, drums, gunshots, hoof beats and lots of pigs’ blood.

This is a tradition of outdoors public spectacle—a lineage of fairs, markets, freak shows, street performances and exhibitions, parades, bandstands, songfests, dances and sporting events. Opportunities for audience interaction expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries with panoramas representing famous battles, museum tableaux, expositions and world’s fairs. Viewer-run motion-picture and three-dimensional photographic inventions in the 19th Century required manual production of movement, such as spinning a stroboscope, flipping a flip book, or changing slides in a stereoscope – and debating among friends about which slide should go next. These pre-cinematic devices provided hands-on, shared, communal entertainment.
The rival tradition of the immobile audience began in the more politically correct indoor theaters of Europe’s 16th and 17th centuries where architectural controls divided performers from the audience. Histories of drama indicate that the use of intimate playing spaces on stage emphasized “actorly effects.” Political and social satire displaced the spectacular and magical. Illusion became tightly framed, emotional manipulation more structured and audiences consigned to immobility, if not censorship, both state- and self-imposed. (For an overview of that transition, see “The Theatrical World,” a forward to the plays in the Pelican Shakespeare Series.

It’s possible to see how these controlling practices led to the industry of the Silver Screen, Broadway producers, Big Media, and teams of screenwriters, studio vice presidents for creativity, ego-driven directors and superstar actors. (Not to mention a commercial cult of personality driven by advertising, marketing and public relations.)

The tradition of audience mobility went in another direction, leading to the development of the all-enveloping panorama in 18th Century England and its subsequent use at national exhibitions and for morale-boosting propaganda. Heads of state and entrepreneurs created large panoramic battle and other patriotic scenes and some were taken on tour in Europe and later in the United States.
Needless to say, the concept of outdoor illusions, life-like tableaux and thrill rides became the staple of 20th Century amusement parks and traveling carnivals. The middle of the century saw media corporations bend the free-wheeling, bordering on outlaw tradition of amusement parks and “carnie shows” back into branded commercial control with the advent of theme parks.

Technology—the use of electricity, applied engineering skills and lens developments—drove much of this growth in both traditions towards more sophisticated applications. But media theorists avoid notions of determinism. They observe that participants in websites like YouTube take over the technology and use it in ways that can’t be extrapolated or predicted. Computers empower the creation of online virtual spaces, which, by themselves, are not the medium of communication. Virtual environments like those proliferating now on the Internet, are “the context within which a variety of image and sound-based media operate,” says Vancouver media critic Ron Burnett.

At one level, this seems quite straight-forward: Build an electronic field of dreams and the videocam fanatics and their audience will show up. But the research indicates something much more profound is going on at the YouTubes and MySpaces.

New technology enables unique multimedia perspectives that, in turn, open up new possibilities for story telling and may even be changing the way that humans process information. Digital technology, Burnett says, enables humans to “create the foundations for different ways of thinking. … Technology is as much about cognitive change as it is about the invention and the creation of physical devices.” (102)
Virtual reality has a “hallucinatory” dimension, Hansen says, that “explains the capacity for the VR interface to couple our bodies with (almost) any arbitrary space, and not just spaces that are contiguous with the physical space we happen to occupy or even spaces that we typically occupy.”
According to recent research on perception, this capacity of computer imagery to “make it real” occurs at a deeper, more biologically based level of human experience, one in which, to use Hansen’s words, “the embodied mind actually creates what it sees.”

The history of visual culture and the new findings of neuroscience, when combined, help us gain a better understanding of consciousness when a viewer clicks on video or enters a 3D or panoramic environment. How do these electronic spaces function? What is the connection, if any, between the physical and virtual world?

Researchers who work with advanced digital interfaces like “fog screens” and 3D helmets or high-speed game displays say the participants exist in both spaces simultaneously – what Burnett calls a “third space.” Others, such as Luciano Floridi, define this space as a mental zone between past and future.

Media critic Brenda Laurel calls it a shared or common ground, “a space of mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs and mutual assumptions,” an alternative reality that gets updated or revised moment to moment: In other words, a “whole” experience that extends the physical world, gives individuals an identity and invites entry into online communities, including virtual newsrooms, if editors would permit.

Once we enter the common ground of YouTube, MySpace or Second Life, we are empowered to live in another dimension, a psychological plane created by a combination of the cognitive ingenuity of software, the quality of content and the participating audience. Deep levels of code and data and the converting algorithms create the illusion of “being there.”

But the next step that researchers in various disciplines and by phenomenologists such as Hansen take is a reversal of perspective of almost Copernican proportions, one that could have profound implications for journalists. Researchers are finding that the human brain does not take in digital imagery as if it were an external geometrical space. Instead, visual sense-making is located within the body. Various sensory processes “generate a ‘haptic spatiality,’ an internally grounded image independent of geometrical space,” as Timothy Lenoir at Stanford explains in a forward to Hansen’s latest book, “New Philosophy for New Media.”

This body-brain connection has profound implications for new media because it downplays “an abstracted sense of vision as the primary sense in favor of the internal bodily senses of touch and self-improvement.” Hansen calls it “haptic vision,” or vision that is engaged with the sense of touch. It accounts for the sensation of flying through 3D environments, diving into satellite-generated images, the belly laugh from a Flash graphic or arousal from the erotic. Some applications are well known (infamous); others have just emerged. Therapists, for example, are beginning to use this tactile dimension to help stroke victims regain mobility and speech functions.

Instead of separating us from our senses by projecting virtual worlds, computers forge an internal body-brain link. “The source of the virtual is thus not technological, but rather a biologically grounded adaptation to newly acquired technological extensions provided by new media,” says Lenoir.

The body-brain experience inspires the user to act, since he or she is now at the center of the universe, as opposed to sitting passively in an audience. Multimedia presentations, especially versions that display with panoramic perspectives or 3D devices such as HMDs, or head-mounted displays , PanoChambers or CAVE virtual reality systems, place the spectator in a single, coherent space. The virtual world continues the physical space surrounding the spectator.

This is the opposite of the Renaissance perspective, which came down to us through photography, cinema and television. While this tradition emphasizes the realism of what is observed, it also splits the viewer’s identity between the physical space and the space of representation. Both cinema and TV confine the viewer to seeing “reality” through a rectangular frame. This is efficient and, as media critic Lev Manovich at the University of California, San Diego, has noted, gives us images that “are easily processed by the brain.” But it also restricts mobility, confines perspective and eliminates the experience of touch.

Hansen identifies the tactile or haptic dimension as the distinguishing feature of new media, requiring more involvement on the part of the viewer than the representational tradition provides. The goal of new media technology is not just to make the image more believable but “to bring into play a supplementary element of bodily stimulation.” Recent physiological research, he notes, shows that tactile stimulation functions as “reality-conferring.” It is an essential element of presence, which Kwan Min Lee at the USC Annenberg School for Communication calls “a psychological state in which the virtuality of experience is unnoticed.”

This bodily activity can be as simple as passing a mouse over a Flash button or as crucial as wearing a “digital glove” to perform surgery. Flight simulators and arcade games have long provided tactile feedback. Whatever the level of engagement, the research indicates that this body-mind link allows the virtual world to be synchronized with the physical world in a way that is grounded in the biological potential of human beings.

Other areas of research—such as biological anthropology, neurophysiology and zoology—deal with building a factual floor under a developing theory called mimetics. A collection of disciplines looks at thoughts as being not necessarily self-generated within the brain but as being acquired through the thoughts of others.

This topic is perhaps best articulated in the pre-Internet work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1970s, and by the recent work of British psychologist Susan Blackmore (“The Meme Machine”) and anthropologist Robert Aunger (“The Electric Meme”). The word “meme” has been popularized by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins (“The Selfish Gene”) to mean a unit of information that plays a social role analogous to genes. Aunger argues that once inside us, “these thoughts (memes) then go to work for themselves, pursuing goals that may be in conflict with our best interests. These ideas have their own interests by virtue of having qualities that make them like biological viruses.”

Aunger warns that the existence of memes remains to be established, like theorized subatomic particles or unseen planets. The concept also faces opposition from other disciplines, such as sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, who tend to equate memes with mysticism. From a journalists’ perspective, for now, it’s worth noting that some rather bright scientists believe that the transmission of news may function like computer viruses. The messages or memes—for example, “Islamofascists,” “NASCAR,” urban legends or Microsoft chimes—may replicate and move from one brain to another by means of signals or icons that initiate “the reconstruction of the relevant meme from materials located there.”

Note that this still-nascent theory seems to fit well with the work of Burnett, Hansen and other new media theorists. Mimetics and related disciplines may help identify how news engages the brain, becomes shared online and how it might influence public discourse, as well as subsequent voting behavior. If Aunger and others are right, daily news conferences, duplicated in thousands of newsrooms each day worldwide, may be acting like Petri dishes, assembling and unleashing digital signals over the Internet that can then replicate in billions of brains, sometimes almost instantaneously. Many is the virus that would envy this infection rate. (For a discussion of the “technology of memory” and how the memory functions in bodies, see “Tangled Memories” by Marita Sturken.)

Equally intriguing is the study of how a large percentage of incoming signals get rejected or filtered by the brain. The sensory input often fails to find an instant fit with an individual’s meme-building materials, such as stored memories, competitive instincts, survival strategies and the potential for empathy. If journalists understood that process better, they might be in a position to offer stronger news that is both intellectually and biologically relevant.

Online newsroom wisdom argues for more interactivity, rich local databases, concierge-like services, blog columns and user-generated content. But that may not be what’s called for. Often, a superficial fix substitutes for fundamental reform, such as arming notebook-carrying print journalists and SLR-equipped photography staffs with video cameras, or setting up a 24-hour rewrite desk run by people who can both write text and edit audio and video content rapidly as it is sent from reporters in the field.

The audience demand for both instant news and deeper forms of interactivity on websites can be seen in the online gaming world, with its forays into online competition, inexpensive pay-per-download services, low-resolution online games that owners can upgrade, personalized karaoke and controllers like batons that allow the user to lead an orchestra or ones shaped like tennis rackets.

Participants demand the tools for interaction, more controls and the ability to assemble forms of reality that matter to them. But Web traffic and extensive use of e-mail indicates that they want access to, and the ability to share, the reality of trained, experienced journalists who do the hard digging, ask the tough questions and shoot professional video, sometimes under hazardous circumstances.

No doubt, the more convincing forms of “presence” and body-mind involvement open new possibilities for telling news in compelling ways. Combining 3D immersive technology with GIS mapping techniques, for example, would offer content to compete with and draw audiences from the YouTubes and MySpaces.

Manovich says that the language of digitization is in an early stage, where cinema was 100 years ago. “We don’t know what the final result will be, or even if it will ever stabilize. … We are witnessing the emergence of a new metalanguage, something that will be at least as significant as the printed word and cinema before it.”

Larry Pryor is an Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. He’s currently researching the haptics and epistemology of digital news media.