The information architecture of cable news scares me
The presentation of information can be more important than the information itself.
— Gary Wolf, on Richard Saul Wurman, quoted in the Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture
When I read that today, at first I cheered. It champions contextualism. It diminishes the value of mere fact, sure. But it does so primarily in relation to experience. It’s acknowledgment that if a fact were captured somehow but we didn’t know it, what we really lose is the opportunity for meaning.
But then I thought about how broad the reach of that perspective can be. I thought about how we get so much of our news: cable news networks.
Thanks to this year’s race to the White House, we’re having what may be some of the most important political conversations in recent history. Will Trump get to bring authoritarianism to the presidency? How civilized are we if we can’t criticize Clinton without misogyny? Since when did “lame duck” mean a March appointment would be unconstitutional? But via cable news, we’re often being presented these conversations in an information architecture (IA) that sacrifices information to the presentation of it.
It’s why we have the 24-hour news networks we do. It’s why our screens show banners and streaming tickers and callouts and picture-in-picture footage at exactly the same time as anchors. Cable news networks are abusing the process. They’re creating framework at the expense of the chance to make fact meaningful. They’re valuing exposure at the expense of focus.
And so I sighed.
Architecture at our own risk
I sighed because I love information architecture. It’s the vital conglomerate of systems we need to understand the space around us. As a content strategist, it’s a thrilling, necessary part of my job. As a former philosophy major, I use IA to examine how I think. And as a person, I use it to pursue a belief: that we should be concerned first with whether our lives make the lives of those around us better.
But there is danger in the comfort of information architecture’s power. There is risk in communication cartography: when we draw maps, we also impose boundaries.
This isn’t revelation or unique to cable news; it’s tale as old as time. At some point, we decided that when it comes to information frameworks, if we build it, they’ll be dumb. We realized that if we’re responsible for introducing you to something, we have an advantage. We can manipulate the scope of your impression. We can also subvert your interest in discovering fact through other means.
What’s so interesting is how good we’re getting at this. We’re sharpening our tools. We’re getting better at using them to manipulate journeys to information. That means we’re getting better at setting means and ends. It also means we’re getting better at sparking motivation. We can define beginnings. We can do more to control the lifecycle of an idea, of a feeling.
Complete, unyielding coverage
Power this broad is exciting. It’s exciting because we can use IA to show you a whole new world. We can empower you. We can help you believe in the possibility of something you never imagined. More importantly, we can help you experience what the world has otherwise told you is not yours to have. We can show you a gif of Michelle Obama being change you can believe in.
I’m afraid, too, though. This power is terrifying because we’re not diversifying access to it fast enough to keep up with our desire to wield it. The power to create the most influential frameworks is still overwhelmingly in white male hands.
I also worry because of how quick we are to define these powers as progress. (More news coverage is always better.) I worry because we’re threatening those who dare to question the worth of this pursuit. (Information is its own laudable goal.) And I worry because IA is part of everything. There’s no communication—no story—it fails to touch.
See you at the crossroads
At its best, an information framework I create gets you to the need you have and me to the goal I want. But at its worst, a framework is manipulation, not direction.
How many times has a stranger asked you how to get somewhere? To help, maybe you’ve counted blocks or mentioned landmarks. You’ve created an information framework — a way of understanding — with the hope that they’d get to their destination. Good direction — good IA, good news — happens when needs and goals coexist and enhance each other. In the pursuit of harmony, there’s still distinction.
But what happens when we inject a goal into a need? That can be absurd, right? It’d be something like giving a stranger, who just needs to get to a café, directions that take them past a Girl Scout cookie stand set up by your coworker’s child. Even though that’s three blocks out of the way. Because you’d get a referral box of Thin Mints.
And yet, we communicate this way all the time. We manipulate the process and abuse the experience. We abuse people. And it’s scary when this happens in our news.
Blinded by the light at the end of a goal
Cable news networks often inject their goals (their contribution to our awareness, their vying for a position as a news leader) into our need to know. It’s why pundits can be described first as candidate supporters: because the network goal of appearing fair and balanced has been fused into our need for news to be accurate. It’s a forced fit with invisibility at its disposal — capable of being violent and jarring but also going undetected.
In so doing, they’ve created a story of hero and monster while struggling to tell the difference between its characters. I’ve lost track of the number of think pieces, for example, about whether Trump is what he is because of the information he creates or the information framework coverage of him does. Heroism (a framework) misused can be as much monster as the terrible forces it describes.
The more important question is whether networks that claim responsibility for our needs can even see them through the lenses of their own goals anymore. And the answer to that is probably a cautionary tale for any of us who create frameworks for information.
Written to: “Darkest Hour” by Lyves.