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..