Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

The new communication tightrope: between caution and carelessness

There’s not a long line of people holding numbers and awaiting their turn, but whenever someone asks me whether I think technology has changed the media for better or worse, my answer is an unequivocal: “Yes.”

I’m not hedging my bets. The Internet has changed communication. For the better. And for the worse.

Though I started out in smoke-filled newsrooms, clacking out my reports on mammoth, foreboding, sit-up-and-beg typewriters, and though I still use shorthand scribbled on spiral-bound notebooks, I am not a Luddite. Smartphone recording capabilities and voice-to-text translation are great aids.

But the answer to the question about the digital revolution is not an “either-or.” It’s a “both-and.”

Used to be we had news round-ups at fixed times of the day, when journalists told us what had happened and helped us make sense of it all. Now we live in a 24/7 news cycle where it’s happening in front of us live right now, and journalists are often more like color commentators at sports events.

This dynamic, ever-changing nature of news is helpful in reminding us that things are not as fixed and certain as we may have liked to believe in the past. We need to be open to changing realities, other views, and different perspectives. There is fluidity to “the facts.” Even when they don’t change, their context—and hence their meaning—may.

The downside to all this is that the temporary, disposable nature of news encourages a lack of caution and a great deal of carelessness—among those providing it and those consuming it. After all, what does it matter if we don’t have things quite right, as long as we are the first to tell others? We can always clarify later.

But the damage may already been done. It may be undo-able.

For, paradoxically, at the same time as making everything temporary, the Internet has made everything permanent. To tweak an old saying: what happens in Vegas stays on Facebook.

Consider the case of Ben Curtis, the young actor whose early 2000s gig selling computers with “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” came to an abrupt end when he was caught buying weed (prompting the quip, “That just proves marijuana isn’t a Gateway drug.”). He has spoken recently about the ongoing career challenges he faces for that never-to-be-forgotten public moment.

Or what about the young TV anchor making his debut—and quick-to-become final—appearance on a local station? Unaware that he was live-miked, the device caught him spewing profanities on air as he waited to be introduced by his co-host.

There’s an undeniable rubber-necking appeal to this “gotcha” factor. We like to watch other people go down in flames. That may be because it somehow makes us feel better about ourselves.

But this danger has impacted news. Many politicians and other public figures are more cautious than ever, crafting carefully worded statements and stage-managing their appearances so they are in no danger of making a mistake, or the appearance of one. The result is stilted and far less human.

There could be a positive effect of this tendency, though, if as a result we are all encouraged to be a little more cautious in our personal communication. Case in point: following the recent hack that exposed many crass comments by people who really should have known better, some of the Sony executives likely regret their intemperate emails.

Whether business or personal, I always remind myself before sending an email to someone that this could be made public one day. So, would I feel good about what I said and the way I said it? It doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion that incites disagreements. However, maybe we’ll be sure to communicate it as agreeably as possible.

The nature of the media has changed, fundamentally, whether we like or not. The real question that remains is how we will maximize the benefits and minimize the dangers, navigating the shadowy line between caution and carelessness.

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