What to Do About The News

We don’t have cable television. As a result I get almost 100% of my news from online sources, primarily Google news. However sometimes I stay at hotels, as I did last weekend in Charleston, SC. While I was there I happened to catch a good half hour of CNN, Fox news, etc. This was during the peak of the Malaysia Airlines disappearance hype.  It was amazing to see how the anchors on all three of the major 24-hour news channels were able to receive no new information, yet continually act as though there was something exciting and important happening.  They were making it up as they went along. It was terrible, hilarious and more than a bit sad.

It’s not news that our media is broken. The real “news” would be some useful approaches to fixing it.

Alain De Botton has recently come out with a new book called The News: a User’s Manual. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but in the meantime I’ve watched this great little talk he gave as part of The School of Life’s Sunday Sermon series. In it he discusses several disconcerting trends that have taken over mainstream news in the last couple of decades. He also  offers up simple philosophical approaches to remedying the situation – both for those of us who digest the news, and those out there who make a living cooking it up.

Over the course of thirty minutes, De Botton makes the case that the news has become fundamentally broken. Central to the problem is that “real news” the important stuff that used to be at the front of the newspaper, has become confused with fun or interesting items that used to be found near the back. Media today has thrown the items in a blender. The result being that twerking and celebrity divorces are getting equal coverage with war, famine and disaster. What’s worse, so much of the information we receive is being delivered free of any context. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to do with this information, why it’s being told to us, how we’re supposed to feel. This lack of commentary has made everything simultaneously an emergency and completely devoid of any real meaning at all.

Another issue De Botton takes a crack at is fear-mongering.  The amount of news in the world – that is the amount of genuinely newsworthy occurrences – has not increased. But what has increased is the amount of media flooding our consciousness. As a result, the news tends to generate a state of hysteria where the world appears much more frightening, dangerous and strange than a it really is.  This is a problem that has been commented on in the past by writers such as Barry Glassner in his classic book on news and hysteria  Culture of Fear. The fact of the matter is, the items that are reported by newspapers and cable TV are exceedingly rare. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be news. I believe this is a message that needs to be disseminated more widely. Fear has become one of the driving forces in our society – whether it’s our approach to raising our children or our approach to foreign policy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with people who are confessed 24 hour news junkies and realized we are living on two different planets. There’s being infinitely more dramatic than mine. This is planet filled with terrorists, kidnappers, murderers and and bath salt riddles psychotics. Of course the reality is that by all measures, our world is more peaceful and more safe than ever. But you’d never know it after finding out about the many many things that are out to kill you on the six o’clock news.

Obviously news is important. From watergate to apartheid to the NSA, the news has opened our eyes and been a powerful agent of social change. Hopefully, by applying a bit of thought to how digest it, the news can stay a force of good in our lives.

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