The one news source I can't do without

Hypothetical: If you had to make do with just one source of news, what would it be? I don't mean which medium, either. Let's narrow it down to one outlet, one group of journalists operating under a collectively identity, working with a common set of standards and principles. Twenty years ago, I probably would have chosen a newspaper, likely the New York Times, with its breadth and depth of coverage, one of the best (and now last surviving) sections devoted to science, and a largely intact reputation for honesty and accuracy.

Today, I have a different answer. Not because the Times' reputation has suffered greatly following its failure to apply skepticism to the Bush administration's war propaganda machine, or even because of the reduction in coverage that the rapidly collapsing newspaper business model has required. Today, if I had to get by with just one source of news, that source wouldn't even be a newspaper. It would be

National Public Radio.

The answer came as a surprise even to me. One day, a couple of years back, I realized that, while the few remaining decent newspapers, including the Times, are still valuable places to turn for insight and analysis, they were no longer meeting my daily recommended dosage of what I shall call, for lack of a better term, "newness." (It's kind of like "truthiness," but with implications of the unexpected.)

NPR not only supplies its listeners with the conventional summaries of what editors think are the most important developments of the past few hours, but it includes a generous proportion of perspectives with which I am not familiar. This is critical in the early 21st century because the explosion of sources of news and analysis that the Internet allows makes it easier than ever before to live in the proverbial echo chamber.

You can now, with almost no effort, live a life unencumbered by points of view or facts that contradict your world view. Reading a newspaper on the web almost eliminates the likelihood of happening upon a story on a subject you wouldn't normally find interesting, but nevertheless grabs your attention thanks to a clever headline or dramatic photograph. This is why so many newspaper readers mourn the impending death of print. I share that sentiment, and recognize that unless we find a way to imbue e-ink publications with that sense of adventure and serendipity, there's really not much hope for hard copy.

Radio news, however, is not so hobbled. Listeners have no control. You don't aggregate a personalized list of stories. You get what you're given. I listen for around four hours a day, sometimes more on the weekends if the weather isn't conducive to experiencing the real world, and rarely does a day go by that I don't hear something that actually makes me think. Today's Morning Edition, for example, included a fascinating interview with an economist who has written a book mocking his own field's predilection for offering advice that makes no sense, an update on the latest climate change talks, and a brief item reminding us that there are people out there for whom nothing is as important as a furniture chain's choice of typeface for its online and print catalogs.

Do I really care about the relative merits of Futura or Verdana? No. (Well, actually, as someone who does some design as part of his professional portfolio, the answer is yes, but that doesn't mean I obsess about it.) The point is, even the humorous breakers in a typical NPR news program and Frank Deford's weekly sports commentaries connect with me some way. And that's saying a lot, given how little I care about sports. NPR's news values are such that I am made to care about a wider variety of things that I did when I began listening. I enjoy and appreciate NPR not because of all the features on subjects that I'm already following (like the 18-month daily "Climate Connections" series), but because of the coverage of subjects that had slipped under my radar.

Even on those rare occasions when, in my opinion as a journalist, the editors have made a poor story selection, I end up thinking about the subject in a way that I otherwise wouldn't have. For example, as part of that climate series, reporter David Kestenbaum assembled a feature on a 16-year-old climate change skeptic. Like many, I was annoyed that Kestenbaum gave discredited arguments serious attention, ignored the obvious influence of her ideologically biased parents and offered kid-glove treatment that he'd never afford an adult pseudoskeptic. I still think that the way the network handled the story was an aberration of journalistic norms.

But at least I am now aware of the one of the major challenges that those of use trying to set the record straight on climate change face: How do we deal with kids whose instincts for iconoclasm and rebellion make them easy targets for propaganda campaigns against the scientific establishment?

It is no coincidence that NPR is one of the few non-profit news organizations with the resources to provide the breadth and depth of coverage that was once the hallmarks of papers like the Times. The writing is on the wall for profit-oriented print. Television news is a wasteland of trivia and sensationalism, with only public broadcasting services providing anything worth watching. Of the traditional, mainstream media, that just leaves radio, and only NPR, as a serious player in the business of providing the information required of the citizenry of a modern democracy.

Fortunately, I do not expect to ever have to choose just one news source. The wondrous world wide web isn't going away and will continue to evolve in ways no one can anticipate and I still read the Times (online). But if I had to, today, it would be NPR.

Thanks NPR.


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NPR? No way. They kowtow to the Pope far too much and have moved solidly into right-wing territory, especially with All Things Considered where we had to hear about how abortion is infanticide over and over again during the last presidential election. If there was one source I had to choose from, I would choose The Rachel Maddow Show.

By aratina cage (not verified) on 31 Aug 2009 #permalink

I also think NPR is great. One of the ways that you can tell is that not only can you find liberals who think it's way too conservative and conservatives who think it's way too liberal, you can also find people of all stripes who respect it as a really good news service.

I've never heard of this "NPR" station, on FM nor DAB. In fact, I've never considered a radio station's news to be a primary news source at all, but it'd be interesting if there were an impartial aspect to the news that were available freely. At the moment, I consider the news as the most missable part of a radio broadcast, only there to mark the time, and as a prelude to the weather (much more important) and the travel news (of utmost importance - especially the tube situation).

News is, however, increasingly an illusion. That there's a constantly sweeping cursor of time that says 'this is important' and then tomorrow it'll be something else while 'this' is now not important, and never will be unless the situation dramatically transforms, is simply an addiction to a perspective. It doesn't say what actually is important or worth paying attention, if you can afford attention in today's recession, and it doesn't indicate what should be done about things either.

News never has and never will. Is there really value in news? Is there really utility in knowing what's going on out there? Probably not, except that it seems a bit uncool to have to be filled in on the latest stuff by everyone else you know. You know, these situations where people assume you have a point of view on a particular news item, and you've actually unawared of it all this time. So, your colleagues, friends or peers simply fill you in on the stuff you need to know, and you can stop unawaring - within about 15 seconds you've caught up to the leading edge again. Tomorrow you can forget it, there's something new to use as social currency to transact with. Yesterday's news has sunk to the bottom of the value ocean.

Did it ever have any actual value, except to the perceiver so that they can appear informed? It's not as if they're going to take this 'news' information and run with it and transform the world with a solution. It's an illusion.

Another vote for NPR. I've been a member of out local station for 15 years.

If accessibility was truly limited to one source exclusively, - my vote would be the photography used in the Financial Times.
I find the juxtaposed body language and sentiment captured in those pages distinguish content rather then support opinion.

I agree 100%, NPR is almost the only unbiased news out there, although the Bill Moyers show is excellent. While I've found some of their stories too conservative, it just lends credence to my claim that everyone should listen to it as their primary source. The 16 year old climate "skeptic" (I use the quotes purposefully) is a good example of a falter, but in general they provide a great understanding of both sides of the news. And by both sides, I mean the sides that are actually worth talking about, when it comes to death panels and the like, they shoot the idea down in flames.

I would vote for Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. With NPR taking tons of corporate money, bias can't be avoided.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 31 Aug 2009 #permalink

As a general news source, the Beeb leaves NPR in the dust. The latter's MOR political bias is a little too obvious. I still do listen to it, although the excessive sports coverage makes me want to stop.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 31 Aug 2009 #permalink

For me? ScienceBlogs. Really. Even mainstream stories, like Ted Kennedy's death, I often hear about here first. (Back in the day, I learned of the September 11th attacks from Slashdot.)

NPR would make a good 'common ground' news source. (BBC is probably better for actual news, but NPR has more and better selected 'random interesting stuff'.)

Apparently Morning Edition is going to have Will Wright (game designer who did SimCity, SimLife, Spore, ect) interviewing EO Wilson. That promises to be cool.

NPR gets my vote too! and for those rooting for the BBC, i'm happy to report that my local station is chicago public radio, which has the BBC news hour on daily, as well as programing from the CBC (and it produces wait, wait! don't tell me! to boot).

I've found NPR's political analysis to be increasingly conservative and increasingly tied to conventional wisdom, which is disappointing. On other matters, they're good.

I think The Daily Show (and in second place, The Rachel Maddow Show) might be that last vestige of journalism.

I get all my US news from scienceblogs and the Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me podcast.

No to radio. For the simple reason that is not a sensible option if you're hard-of-hearing or deaf...

It's years since I've been in England, but any calls for the The Independent newspaper? (Maybe they've lowered their standards, too, for all I know.)

By DeafScientist (not verified) on 01 Sep 2009 #permalink

I think it's generally a bad idea to even think about getting all your news from one source. That would be the definition of BAD as a way to inform oneself.

Another not bad source to add to your mix is a bunch of folks, many formerly from the BBC, who now call themselves Al Jazeera. The English web site is quite good as a digest. I would like more in depth stuff, though.

Ahhh, yes, NPR. James, you probably grew up with CBC radio like me. So when I moved to the US and found NPR, I was very relieved to hear balanced, intelligent, and most importantly, NON COMMERCIAL. I simply plunk on my headphones while doing my IT work, all day long. Their voices are soothing to me, free of loud commercial distractions (their voice coach I heard was from the CBC) and informative. Opinions and views from both "sides" are offered. Sure, sometimes they venture a little more on either side, but they always come back. And surprising for a century-old technology, they are at the forefront of our modern digital age. I asked myself 'why would I want to listen to the radio on my computer?' many years back...until I moved either to an office with poor reception or to another state with poor radio choices; I was then very thankful for their podcasts etc. Not only that, radio actually complements the internet such that if I hear about something new on the radio, I can google or wiki it immediately. It has become my prime medium for news, and I cannot do without it.

By Pierre Caron (not verified) on 01 Sep 2009 #permalink

No single news source can be trusted 100% of the time, so one must cast around a bit. Al Jazeera, BBC World, Sky News, France24, CNN and, of course, "The Daily Mash", all get my attention at various times during the day. From time to time I'll cast an eye towards "PressTV" (Iran) and CCTV9 (China).

While most media commentators obsess over the "news" that Diane Sawyer will be replacing Charlie Gibson on ABC World News, there are at least some observers who remain more concerned with content. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne weighs in this morning on the sensationalism that has dominated coverage of public participation in the health care insurance reform debate. What we learn about the role of television is not surprising, but it does help remind us why things are going the way they are: