Shifting focus: A new window into the myriad of media

The information age presents news consumers with a paradox. They are living in what must be the easiest and most difficult media environment in history.

It is the easiest, in that news is everywhere and from more sources than ever. You can use your cellphone or your computer screen to get headlines from Boston or Bombay. You can download the news to your iPod. You can read a New York Times article at 9 a.m. and review a blogger's critique of that article at 9:15 a.m. In America, you can watch any one of three 24/7 cable news channels, and more are on the way. And don't forget the countless array of networks, newspapers, and magazines.

In short, you have more choices than ever.

But – and here's the "difficult" part – that choice means more work for you. Outlets have different standards, different focuses, and different agendas. The result is that people have never been more able to get a comprehensive picture of the world, but they also have never been so able to hunker down in a small world of topics and ideas that skews their view of reality. What's more, this explosion of news outlets and availability has come at a time when most people are busier than ever and have less time to carefully sort through their news choices.

When you add up the pluses and minuses of our information saturation, one thing becomes clear: It is vital to understand how the media works – why organizations, producers, editors, reporters, and bloggers, make the choices that they do.

That will be the new focus of this column. Twice a month I will attempt to explain, dissect and/or understand some aspect of the media. This space will look at everything from business concerns to reporting successes and failures to technological changes to the future of media as we have come to know it.

And since we are on the topic of helping people understand the news media, here are a few words about myself to further the cause of media transparency – the effort to make those hidden biases better known.

I've been involved in the editorial side of journalism in one way or another for more than 15 years now. I have written for or worked at newsletters (most of which don't exist anymore), newspapers (including this one), and magazines (including Newsweek). I currently work at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington as a senior associate, which means I spend a lot of my workday reading and writing about the media – whether I like it or not.

But ultimately I want this column to be about more than just some media guy sitting in a media office somewhere writing about the media. First, that sentence is simply too repetitious to be healthy. Second, that is exactly the kind of insular thinking that people hate about the media.

So to help broaden this column, I'm asking for your help. I want to know what you think about the media. What confuses you? What frustrates you? How can we make it better? Please e-mail me. I want your questions and your bugaboos, as long as they're more substantive than a complaint about Katie Couric's choice of lipstick or Charlie Gibson's tie.

This column is not out to grind axes. There are plenty of places to do that already. It will also not be a place to rehash the right-left bias debate. Political bias is an issue worth discussing every once in a while, but when one considers the number of biases out there – from the bias toward authority to the bias toward emphasizing conflict in stories – limiting it to red and blue finger-pointing is shallow.

This space will also take an expansive view of the news media. It will look at media personalities and organizations. And it will consider print, Web, and broadcast journalism, as well as the growing field of hybrid journalism that combines these media – and, of course, the blogosphere.

But most important, it will, I hope, consider the news media – old, new, mainstream, and decentralized – from the users' perspective. The information age offers a lot of good in these best of media times – the key is to find it, know it, and understand it. Easier said than done? Certainly. But at the very least we will explore the media, and that journey alone will be interesting.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, will write a twice-monthly column on media issues.

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