Here is the News

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs.
Alain de Botton, The News: A User's Manual, Received Ideas 8

I don't have a TV, so I don't watch the news. Even when I did have a TV, I still didn't watch the news, because I don't believe that the news is healthy viewing for young children. I briefly had a news feed on the front page of my search engine on my new computer, until I worked out how to turn it off. I happen to think that always knowing the latest news about everything is an overrated aspect of modern life.

For a start, news isn't really actually news, in the sense that we believe that the news is some kind of objective window onto the reality of what is happening in the world. Whatever the news is, it isn't that. Watch any commercial news program, or scan any news feed, and what you will see is a selection of salacious gossip about celebrities, some gratuitous and graphic violence, some feel-good stories involving children and animals, a lot of sports coverage, and some token sound bites from geo-political hot spots. National public broadcasting companies are a little more classy and a little bit left-leaning, but essentially the same beast. When I do listen to the news, almost exclusively our own Australian national public broadcaster, the ABC news, on the radio, I am continually exasperated by how much airtime is taken up by speculation - talking heads predicting whether house prices will rise or fall, what politicians are going to do next, whether international heads of state will start a war or who is going to win the Japanese election. This is not news in any sense of the word, so much as it is fortune telling. But by experts, of course. So it is practically news. Because experts are never wrong.

But this is just nit-picking about content. My huge objection to the news is its insidious project of presenting the world view that it favours as a given. I am not talking about politics, the ideologies of the left or right, or international affairs. These are debated endlessly and you can choose your news outlet to reflect your own views. What I am concerned about is that the news fails to reflect thoughtfully on our way of life at all. The chief project of our society is to not question the way we live. It is to assume that we are fundamentally correct in all our ideas and to interpret all news events through that lens.

In my utopian parallel universe journalism would exist to unpack our assumptions about our world, to drill deep, to lift the rug and find all the dirt we've swept under there. Maybe to ask the question about where the emperor's clothes have got to anyway.. Now, of course this kind of journalism exists, but it is not generally featured in any kind of major news outlet. You have to go searching for deep journalism, then you have to wrestle with its conclusions and sit quite uncomfortable with its ramifications.

Several years ago I read an article by a journalist who had travelled to West Africa to visit cocoa farms, and the children who were sold as indentured labour to work on those farms. She secretly met with these children who didn't know where their parents were, who had never been to school, whose lives were endless labour in the cocoa plantations. And she took them chocolate. They had no idea what happened to the cocoa pods when they left the farm. They chewed the raw cocoa to keep up their energy to keep working.

This one article, which I cannot find now all these years later, had a profound effect on the way that I think, and the way that I shop. When we, as consumers, discover that chocolate would need to be ten times more expensive in order for cocoa farmers to make a decent living, it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong with the way that chocolate is currently produced.

It made me aware enough to start hunting for evidence about how other food is farmed and processed, and made me want to find out who makes my stuff, and under what conditions. This kind of journalism asks several key questions - how does our society really function? And what kind of stories do we tell ourselves in order to keep its machinery functioning? For instance, when we buy chocolate, what stories do we tell ourselves about the child slaves who made that cheap chocolate possible? How do we push them to the back of our minds as we stand at the supermarket shelves? That is a story I am quite interested in.

Maybe we could ask different questions of experts - instead of endless predictions about events that are going to happen one way or the other anyway, we could ask about how to make things better.

We might ask ourselves questions such as: who benefits from the news, who benefits from the stories it tells, or neglects to tell about our society?

We might think about our relationship to the news. Is the news entertainment, and are we merely consumers of the spectacle that is the nightly news, or are we citizens, receiving important communications about the truths that underpin our society? If the latter, if we are citizens and journalists are actually bringing us vital information, what are we going to do with that? Are we going to let it change the way we think and act?

These are some of the things I think about in the odd half hours that I don't watch the news..


jj said…
Thanks Jo, a timely reminder with the way the World is currently! I recall reading an article by John Michael Greer some years ago on LESS, 'Less Energy, Stuff & Stimulation'. It had a big impact on me then & continues to be my touch stone. I so enjoy your writing, thank you for taking the time & effort, such an important contribution :)
Jo said…
jj, yes, I recall it frequently as I potter along the road to a simpler life. Less stimulation is certainly an upside of not interacting with the news. And less stimulation means more time for my brain to work on other issues. I have to say, multitasking and me do not mix, so concentrating on one thing at a time is always a bonus..
simplelife said…
This is very timely. I really dislike the news but often feel like I need to know stuff to fit into social situations, that makes it sound like I have a social life 😂. I find news and also social media really drag my mood down and often make me anxious. At the same time though I'm so addicted to my phone and mindless scrolling it's really a downward spiral. I totally agree that with the 24 hr news channels now it's not news, it's speculation, it's guessing, it's talking to someone who has 6 degrees of separation from the event as though they are an expert and don't get me started on the pollies creating fear, then offering us their care and attention and this oh so wonderful solution to that dreadful problem we didn't even know we had before they highlighted it.
Climbing down now
I opt out of watching news, and catch ABC radio news when driving IF I'm not listening to podcasts. I sometimes think I'm 'checking out' and being uninformed, but then I agree with your points on the value of what is IN the news.

As a child, we didn't grow up with a TV, but we knew at our mum's best friends house the 'tune' of the ABC news was a sign to TURN THE TV OFF. And we obediently did.

I do, some Saturdays, read the Sydney Morning Herald and have a coffee in a cafe. But I notice I read as much fluff/editorial as news. And, as you rightly say, so little media gives us solutions and calls to actions.

And on chocolate - it's one thing I'm yet to have myself mentally tied in knots. But I analyse using the lift when I could take the stairs, as much for my health; as fossil fuel usage. And I think... WOW, I overthink this so much!!
Jo said…
Kate, I often miss 'news events', and I find that someone always fills me in. People are delighted to tell me the news, as I am the only person they have met all day who has no idea, so they can tell me the news AND their pet theories about it. I feel like it is a community service! And yes, I agree that our politics is increasingly the politics of fear. Here is some news I did absorb this week - our Prime Minister announcing new laws to 'protect' us - the one about being able to detain suspects for two weeks without charging them?? Civil liberties anyone? Really, let's turn our country into a police state to 'protect' ourselves from the threat of terrorism. You know what would save thousands more lives every year? Banning cars. Bam! Done. Thousands of lives saved and injuries avoided. Not a conversation anyone is going to have anytime soon.

Ok, I'll climb down now as well :)

Sarah, I think our daily lives are well worth analysing. After all, daily life is all we have, in the end..
Anonymous said…
Well I do think we could all be doing more service for our communities do I shall remember that when next I have a conversation with someone who knows far more than I about recent events.
Cheers Kate

Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

In your comment to Kate you expressed something that I had recently discovered myself - that people really appreciate the opportunity to tell someone else news (bad, especially) that they haven't heard. Kind of like a pleased cat laying a dead mouse at your feet. So, there's not too much need to peruse every issue of the day oneself. I think you're right - we are "community servants"!

Linda said…
We always listened to the Radio 4 news, woke up to it with the alarm and my husband listened to it all the way to work in his car ( 45mins journey). The first day of his retirement I was amazed not to hear the news playing on the radio - silence! He said now he was retired he didn't need to hear the news. Been retired 21years now and he's never listened to that 6am news programme since. We watch very little TV news but do read lots of newspapers!
Jo said…
Pam and Kate :) Pam, I loved your phrase "a pleased cat laying a dead mouse at your feet" Priceless!

Linda, that is funny.. I wonder why he needed to know the news while he was working? I love that he 'retired' from the news! I am also a newspaper tragic. Yesterday my daughter bought me the weekend newspapers and I lost a good couple of hours because I have to read. every. word. This is why I also try to stay away from newspapers..
Unknown said…
I do read and watch the news - ABC and Sydney Morning Herald usually. With smattering of The Guardian and sometimes drop into more tabloid sources. But, while I won't drop out altogether for a while anyway, I do get frustrated on the angle they take and what they leave out. The focus on certain topics which they then drop. Not looking at economic inequalities. Things like the source of our cheap goods.

The focus on death and "accidents" and minor points of what this or that politician said and on celebrities just irks me beyond belief.

With five weeks of no radio or TV news, I am going to try not to get hooked into a habit again. But for my work I do need to be up to date on many issues.

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