Is News Puzzling or Mysterious?

In this week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point, has a piece about the distinction between “puzzles” and “mysteries.” Puzzles have objective answers and are solved when all necessary information is assembled. Mysteries are “answered” in probablistic language and are solved by aggregating and interpreting as much data as possible; mysterious data is subjective and never complete.

Diagnosing prostate cancer used to be a puzzle, for example: the doctor would do a rectal exam and feel for a lumpy tumor on the surface of the patient’s prostate. These days, though, we don’t wait for patients to develop the symptoms of prostate cancer. … The urologist is now charged with the task of making sense of a maze of unreliable and conflicting claims. He is no longer confirming the presence of a malignancy. He’s predicting it, and the certainties of his predecessors have been replaced with outcomes that can only be said to be “highly probable” or “tentatively estimated.” What medical progress has meant for prostate cancer… is the transformation of diagnosis from a puzzle to a mystery.

This is a useful distinction with applications in the rapidly ongoing evolution of media and reporting. Mainstream media organizations like The New York Times, CNN, or The Economist appear to be designed for “puzzle-solving:” they assemble facts and a putative subject expert writes a definative account or analysis of events.

The blogosphere and “distributed” or “radically transparent” or “citizens'” media treat news as a mystery. Loosely coordinated writers collect and subjectively interpret data – much of it publicly available – aided by the ethic of links and updates. This approach can be seen most recently in the Jamail Hussein investigation.

In this way, the blogosphere resembles the World War II British team that bested traditional intelligence agencies by analyzing German propaganda. Indeed, Clive Thompson drew this parallel in the New York Times last month (via Chris Anderson). Much current media innovation attempts to embed the mystery-solving aspects of the blogosphere within mainstream media business models (e.g., wiki editorials, commenting and digg enabled at BusinessWeek, etc.).

PREVIOUSLY: Eason Jordan for Transparent Media

UPDATE: The WWII V-1 rocket analysis mentioned above is parelled exactly by Iran’s mysterious nuclear weapons program. From Mr. Gladwell’s article:

The German secret weapon was a puzzle, and the Allies didn’t have enough information to solve it. There was another way to think about the problem, though, which ultimately proved far more useful: treat the German secret weapon as a mystery. … Goebbels had never lied to his own people about that sort of news. So if he said that Germany had a devastating secret weapon it meant, in all likelihood, that Germany had a devastating secret weapon.

Bloomberg News (via Hugh Hewitt):

Iran will start producing nuclear fuel on an industrial scale soon, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said… Iran is determined to “achieve peaks of success and defend its interests powerfully,” the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as telling supporters in Khuzestan province [on January 3]…

UPDATE: Above, I alluded to the Jamail Hussein affair. On January 4, the Associated Press reported that he does in fact exist and has been arrested (via Michelle Malkin). Developing…


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