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Data Deluge: the Changing Role of the Media, Ralph J. Begleiter, CNN World Affairs Correspondent, Washington, D.C.

BG9703E | Date: 1997-01-22

(This article is taken from "Global Issues," an Electronic Journal of the U.S. Information Agency, Volume 1, Number 12, September 1996, which is also available on the World Wide Web at

One of the most disturbing trends of the new "Information Age" stems from the information glut. American humorist Russell Baker in a New York Times column joked about it, and he hit on the fundamental dilemma of the public, the media, and the policymaker. Baker noted that the underlying assumption of the "information highway" is that the troubles of the world are the result of a lack of information. He complained that it's really quite the opposite.

The world is being "battered senseless, then buried under avalanches of information...assaulted by a ceaseless flow of information," Baker wrote. "No one can digest it, make sense of it or judge whether it's information worth having." He likened the situation to Walt Disney's interpretation of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" in "Fantasia," with Mickey Mouse's dreams of relentless water-toting brooms eventually flooding the castle.

Baker complained, correctly, that the information age is only open to those who can afford the new technology, which excludes millions worldwide. But he failed to point out the incredible challenge posed by the opposite of "exclusion" from the information highway, the challenge that the relentless flood of information poses for public policy.

The technology of the information age suddenly enables the public, more than ever, to selectively limit the information it absorbs on national and international affairs. The profusion of television channels and computer sources demands that individuals screen their information intake, sometimes not very carefully. Television surveys reveal that people sat for hours absorbing every minute detail of the O.J. Simpson murder trial on television, then switched off their sets when the news returned on CNN and other stations. As much as they knew about the Simpson case, they failed to discover the policy challenges of the day, whether it's human rights abuses in Chechnya and Bosnia, the complex diplomacy of the Arab-Israeli peace process, or new environmental regulations for power plants.

This phenomenon is often referred to as the "filter" or "gatekeeper" role of the news media, which often "force-feeds" new ideas, events, and trends into the public stream of consciousness. It may be becoming less influential. Screening many topics out of an individual's daily information diet can have the disastrous consequence of preventing important news from penetrating the public's consciousness. But at the very moment when this "gatekeeper" role is becoming less influential in broadcasting and the Internet, it may well be more needed than ever.

As a journalist, I worry about this trend. It magnifies the distinction between "information" and "journalism." The satellite age--the information age--brings a glut of information, such as word-for-word dissemination via the Internet of the proceedings of the U.S. Congress, but leaves our public without the crucial analysis and context, the elucidation and illumination, traditionally provided by journalists.

Journalists in the information age may see their "gatekeeper" role become more defined as "guides" or "escorts." As "gatekeepers," the media select information that reaches its audiences. But in the world of the Internet, a new role is emerging. That role is steering people to reliable, accurate information amid the deluge of data available.

Journalists should be guides to what people want to know about and what they should know about their community, country, and world. The media must even convince people to pay attention to topics that are currently not of interest to them. These are new responsibilities journalists must accept.

The deluge of information available need not be curtailed. In fact, the freedom of the Internet, which allows almost anyone with a computer to "publish" inexpensively to the world, should continue unfettered. The Internet's freedom is what sets it apart from the more controlled media of the past, including newspapers, television, and radio.

But the Internet's freedom also creates its overwhelming flood of information, and consumers of information have few resources on which to depend for sorting through the flood. That's where the new responsibilities of journalists come in. Serving as "guides," or "escorts"--as gauges of credibility for the vast array of information on the Internet. Consumers need journalists to help them determine what's worth reading and what's not.

As former CBS News President Ed Klauber once said: "In a democracy it is important that people not only should know, but should understand."