Destimulating the Journalism Laser

posted Mar 08, 2004

A LASER, which is technically an acronym that stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, works in general as follows:

A resonance chamber is filled with some substance and "stimulated" in some manner so it wants to release photons. The photons a substance releases will be of certain frequencies corresponding to the substance's emission spectrum. The chamber is an integral multiple of of the wavelength that you desire.

On one side you have a full mirror which reflects as much as possible of the relevant wavelength. The other side reflects some of the wavelength, and lets some of it out. Thus, some light is released at that end.

Because photons are a type of particle called a "boson", they tend to clump together; given the opportunity an atom will tend to emit a photon with the same phase and direction as another photon nearby. This is what allows the laser to work; as the atoms are stimulated, they will emit photons in random directions. As the stimulation increases, the atoms are more and more likely to emit a photon, and they will tend to emit a photon that is like another one nearby because there are more photons nearby. Most photons will be in the wrong direction and despite the amplification that direction will eventually cancel itself out, but some atom somewhere will emit a photon that happens to be exactly parallel to the chamber itself. The wave this generates will extremely rapidly become the dominant wave in the chamber, and thus you have coherent light coming out the other end.

(The light is often represented as a beam, but in at least some lasers, such as the very readily accessible red Helium lasers, it does not come out of the laser as a beam but as a cone which must be focused by a lens to become a beam.)

We call the light coherent because each photon is quantum mechanically the same, with the same phase and identical frequencies. This has various special properties which are extremely useful in a wide variety of applications.

Big Journalism as "Laser"

I submit to you that lasers are a more accurate metaphor for describing our journalism system then the more popular echo chamber.

The laser metaphor has much more explanatory power. An echo chamber echos everything. A laser only significantly amplifies photons that are going in the correct direction. The news media only amplifies certain stories.

The reason I believe this metaphor is superior is that it gives us the opportunity to discuss the "excitation level" of Big Journalism. If you take a laser and just lightly stimulate it, it won't actually form a coherent beam because the light is escaping too quickly to become involved in a standing wave inside the resonance chamber. As you stimulate it more, eventually you cross the point where the coherent beam develops, and then more stimulation only brightens the beam until it eventually melts the components themselves.

As I hope is obvious, the "photons" are stories, and the "atoms" are people or companies participating in the journalistic process. Just like photons in the laser, atoms are randomly emitting photons all the time, little stories that attract little or no attention and die without ever being echoed or amplified, because they aren't in line with what can be sustained.

Of course the metaphor isn't perfect. Real lasers have nothing like CNN. Real lasers have a fairly sharp line between "laser" and "mere light", whereas in journalism the line is fuzzier and much more complicated because there are many, many interesting directions instead of just one. But as long as you are aware of the dangers of metaphors and only use the metaphor as explanation, not argument, it's a pretty good metaphor.

"Excitation Level"

As the "excitation level" of Big Journalism increases, it becomes more and more likely that any given story will be in line with the some "proven" story. Eventually the "proven" story starts exluding other valid stories. We see this effect all the time, so it's safe to say the excitation level of the media is very high. How many children were kidnapped during the Elizabeth Smart story? How many people actually died of shark attacks during the "Summer of the Shark"? (Eight fewer then the year before, from 13 to 5.) Is Janet Jackson still worth discussing? (She came up again on the radio on the drive to work this morning, so apparently yes.)

The problem with the media is not the "echo chamber", it is excessive excitation. An "echo chamber" is inevitable and good; it is the only way for stories to propagate past their original area; without amplification, we'd never hear about anything outside our immediate circles. The problem is how often stories "lase": They become the primary story, both over-covering the story and excluding other stories because there is only a finite amount of coverage available.

The goal is thus not to Nuk[e] the Echo Chamber, but to lower the excitation level of the media so that we return to a more normal amplification profile, where many stories are amplified up to the national level but no one story becomes the primary focus, unless it really deserves it.

Why Is Big Journalism So Excited?

To understand why Big Journalism acts the way it does, we must understand what motivates the whole appartus to lase stories. It is safe to assume there is no conspiracy but that it results from pressures common to all Big Journalism sources. I think the answer boils down to four mostly distinct issues:

  1. Concentration: A Big Media outlet puts out one story and it is immediately a big deal, relative to some schmoe like me breaking a story starting from scratch. Because its selection criteria are fundamentally flawed, these big institutions can pick up odd stories, which helps explain some of the stupider examples like the Summer of the Shark which had only loose basis in reality.
  2. Risk-aversion: Big companies become risk averse. In the context of the news, this means that a big company will preferentially run a story that already has legs over some news story that hasn't proven itself interesting. In terms of our metaphor, these groups of atoms are even more predisposed to emit an identical story then a smaller group would be.
  3. Money: A collection of a lot of little issues that all boil down to money. The purpose of a big media outlet is to convert human curiosity into money. Abstractly, we tend to be more interested in more stories about the news we've already heard, if we were interested to start with, which means we're more likely to watch news stories about stories that already have legs.

    Compare this to Hollywood, which is every bit as concentrated and risk-averse as Big Journalism, but where we don't want to see the exact same movie over and over again, or even "sequels" over and over again. This prevents the movie industry from lasing to the same extent that Journalism does. One of the mistakes that Hollywood makes, over and over again, is to fail to take this into account, which results in all those hordes of "me-too" movies that rarely do well. (Remember that the movie industry works on a much longer cycle then the media; years to make a movie, days or hours write a story. We do see bursts of similar movies over the course of a couple of years, but that's still only two or three cycles. The movie equivalent of the "Summer of the Shark" story would be making the exact same movie for 100+ cycles, which is 100 to 200 years.)

    Ferocious competition is pushing down the amount of money a company can sink into a story, so quality sinks as each journalist is allocated less time per story. These low quality stories are the ones that then get amplified. This same need to reduce expenses also renders these large companies incapable of responding to the vast amounts of feedback they receive because that requires expensive people that don't seem to add business value to the company.

    In a nutshell, money pressure causes the quality of the initial stories to be as low as possible, just like nearly every industry today. This is then amplified by the other two factors, combined with the fact that none of the other major outlets has the money to research a story more deeply when they can just repeat it, causes these low quality stories to dominate the discourse. (By "low quality", I mean all the side effects of not having much time to put the story together: Errors, misquotes, lack of context due to the journalist not having time to understand the story, and increasing pressure to just make things up as necessary.)

  4. Competition: Finally, there is competition for finite resources. There is only so much attention we have to give and so many ads or stories that can be sold. Combine this with the three factors above, and the "solution" to the competition problem is to yell the same things over and over again, as loudly as possible, with little time or incentive to put any work into improving the quality of the story or digging deeper.

Calming Journalism Down

Attack any of those four issues and you can calm journalism back down to a more normal state, which is what we're really looking for. One we can dismiss out of hand: there will always be competition as attention will always be a finite resource. But the other three might be manipulable.

Reducing risk aversion is theoretically possible... but not really since it's a "boil the ocean" approach. Everybody all at once must be willing to try new things, so many new things that Big Journalism perceives that they can make their money back by trying them, and there is a significant number of people who aren't really willing to try enough, all the time, to make this work. In fact, I'm not sure I'm willing; it's a lot to ask. If the Dot-Com bust taught us anything, it is to not rely on boiling the ocean.

I think there are two plausible lines of attack against the lasing behavior, attacking the concentration problem and the money problem.

First, we can attack the money problem by continuing to help the media get it right. The media, for its own good, needs to learn to leave its own version of the ivory tower, and not be afraid to use our cheap fact-checking and buy the rights to run essays and such from "the public". Journalism as an institution isn't going away, and journalists aren't going away, but the era of only journalists doing stories is probably going away. Professional journalists have a huge time advantage on us amateurs making a living in other ways, but the simple fact is that journalists have no lock on writing talent or valid opinions, never did, never will. It would be wise for the large media companies to dissociate these two activities until there is virtually no connection between fact-gathering and the story writing.

But this requires cooperation from the media industry, cooperation I believe inevitable but we probably don't want to wait. We can also attack the concentration problem by the simple expedient of de-centralizing journalism. The best thing we can do is encourage people around us to use alternate media. I recently demo'ed News Aggregation to my wife the other night and while she is still not necessarily interested, she's now aware it exists and that alone is a step forward. She's probably not the type to be a "source", as I try to be, but we don't necessarily need 100% of the population writing, we just need more people willing to pull their attention away from the TV onto alternate sources. It is possible to use News Aggregators to do nothing but pull New York Times and BBC feeds, but I would bet that on average, sooner or later nearly everyone would find other sites to read from relating to their interests. This reduces the motivativation for lasing, because it draws negative attention from smaller people and groups, and it requires a much stronger story to lase. (9-11 was always going to covered with laser-beam focus, but few stories should be able rise to this magnitude of coverage.)

If somebody really wanted to accelerate this process, my suggestion for the fastest way to reduce the lasing effect is to start a deliberate advertising campaign for various News Aggregation products, which most people still don't know exist. And I mean a traditional advertising campaign, you know, TV spots, partnership deals (great use of always-on connections), etc.; fundamentally such software will spread by word-of-mouth but such ads can prime that pump by reaching into entire groups of people who would otherwise never be reached, or not be reached for a long time. I'd let the weblog posting aspects be a Trojan horse.


Due to the way feedback cycles like this work, this may not be as hard as it looks. Reducing the effect of one of the feedback mechanisms can have a disproportionally strong effect on the output. Indeed, if you know where to look I think we're already seeing some of the preliminary effects of this, in the influence weblogs have already demonstrated in setting the agenda and holding conventional media to their claimed standards, even with current numbers of weblog writers and readers. As more people turn to alternate media, mostly on the Internet, the lasing will gradually be replaced with more sane reporting; there won't be one day where suddenly "New Media" has won, but the lasing should gradually decrease in intensity.

It is important to stay realistic. We'll still have an "echo chamber" in the end, just not as strong. People will still be interested in news about celebrities. People will still disagree with your ideology. People are going to exercise their free speech right to listen to things they like, then talk about them, because people do have broadly similar tastes in things. This isn't an opportunity to do Social Engineering, it is in fact the opportunity to shut down existing Social Engineering. The result won't be a swing towards Your Favorite Ideology, it will be more diversity in general.

We already have all the tools we need to nuke the echo chamber and calm the media down so the anomalous lasing effects stop. The job now is to get them out there, get people using the tools, and maybe making a buck or two along the way.


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