The News: A User’s Manual

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The NewsAlain de Botton attempts in his small book to give us a guide, to provide some larger, meaningful context, to the news we get 24/7 these days. I don’t think he succeeds very well. In part it’s because he sees news as something grandiose, world-moving, world-shaking. I’m more familiar with the local aspect; a much smaller scale. It may not appear to have the majestic sweep of international news, but it isn’t any less relevant.

We are focused, collectively, on the US presidential campaigns and the interpersonal battles between Trump and Clinton. It’s a great drama of Homeric or Shakespearean proportion (albeit comical). But are they really any more important to us than, say, the confrontation between members of our own council – Deputy Mayor Saunderson, Councillors Doherty and Jeffrey in particular – and the local hospital board?

A local issue may seem small in comparison, but it certainly has more impact on our daily lives here. And the personalities and their comments are no less colourful.

News and its reporting is a topic I often ponder, especially online sources. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time considering the status and value of media, it sometimes seems. Stems from spending a dozen years in local media, and more decades in media outside, but also in my ongoing interest in media in general. And in local media in particular. I’m sure my friend Alex, the McLuhan scholar par excellence, would have some pithy comment about obsession with media.

Context is a large area. I have examined many news sites to see how stories are presented and what sort of context is offered beside or within a feature item. Local media in particular.

And equally I have despaired that serious or significant news is all-too-frequently coupled with or presented adjacent to trivial content. Or the later is presented with equal or greater prominence on a landing page. Celebrity-based dreck, salacious piffle, or simply irrelevant gossip draws the reader’s attention from real issues. It’s as if the media deliberately wanted to distract us.

It doesn’t matter how often I say “who cares” when a story about the latest faux pas of some rapper I’ve never heard of, or some starlet’s recently-waxed bikini body captured on film is juxtaposed against a piece that actually matters to my daily life. My opinion is apparently among the minority, given that some media like The Daily Mail thrive on it. Yet AN Wilson, reviewing the book in The Telegraph, wrote,

…the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the media is a comic one. Almost no actor, footballer or backbench MP manages to make it into the newspapers without strenuous efforts of self-promotion. Naturally, celebrities themselves think that the sycophancy will go on forever and, equally naturally, they are appalled when we tire of their triumphs and enjoy reading about their domestic upsets. But how this should be “deeply” sad, or “deeply” anything is, I am afraid, lost on me.

Media, especially online media, have learned that most people care more about trivia, celebrities, sexually-suggestive content, the exotic, gossip and exposes of bad lifestyles than about actual content. A nipple slip is worth thousands more views than a refugee’s struggle. And when you’re counting page views for advertising dollars, offering gawkish crap makes the cash register sing.

We need, desperately, to connect to the important stories and issues, to understand what affects and controls our lives. To see them in a larger frame. But it’s too easy to be distracted. Climate change is killing us but look, some rapper is tweeting about the flat earth… a nipple slip on stage… who’s on the red carpet?… is Brad screwing someone else?… have to look… and goodbye our attention on climate change.

Using 25 “archetypal” stories, de Botton examines how the media presents them and how readers approach them. (digression: I came across his book in the bargain section of the local Chapters store. I am unashamed to admit I can easily spend hours poring over the discounted books and usually buy an armload every visit. The News: A User’s Manual (Pantheon Books, New York, 2014) was among my latest haul.)

The News is a book of philosophy, rather than one of grammar, style, layout or presentation. Well, he does venture into the realm of headlines to explore how they affect our reading, comprehension and interest, and I suppose they relate to presentation. But it’s mostly about perception and approach with a dollop of chastisement. de Botton writes:

We need news organizations to help our curiosity by signalling how their stories fit into the larger themes on which a sincere capacity for interest depends. To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to ‘put’ it, which means some way of connecting to an issue we already know how to care about.

Those lines came to mind while reading recent stories in local papers about the Collingwood hospital redevelopment. None of the stories I read in the local media – in fact, none of the stories in them about any local issue – had the content required to explain the larger context. Most simply reported a council presentation as if THAT were the news alone, not simply the tip of a much larger iceberg. And all of the stories were written from a council-administration slant.

Not a single one explored the questions of what happens next, what happens to the individuals who need medical care once Collingwood loses its hospital, what it means to local doctors or their patients, or emergency services. Not a single one asked why a group on council would actively attempt to sabotage the redevelopment. Not one asked, if council screws this up (as it appears determined to do), what does it mean to the community at large?

Context, I suppose, is everything. And we didn’t get it, locally. de Botton writes:

It is for news organizations to … give us a sense of the larger headings under which minor incidents belong. An item on a case of petty vandalism one Saturday night in a provincial town… might come to life if it was viewed as a miniscule moment within a lengthier drama titled, “The Difficulties Faced by liberal Secular Societies Trying to instil Moral Behaviour without the Help of Religion.”

Those lengthier dramas hardly get attention in an age of nine-second attention spans. We are too focused – or at least the media is – on the immediate “facts.” As if every story was a single episode, a one-off incident, rather than a rung on a long ladder of events and results. It takes considerable effort and resources to develop the larger picture. Instead, we get the buckshot approach: little pellets of facts from a hundred items flung at us simultaneously.

And those facts are too often selective presented and interpreted.

Many news organizations are struggling. They focus their attention on the bottom line more than on what their readers need. Not that it has helped Postmedia, which seems to be bleeding money no matter what it tries or how many employees it fires. But they know the explicit, the shocking, the titillating, the salacious get more readership, while the larger dramas float in and out of perception. Remember 9/11? Did you even recall its 15th anniversary this weekend?

Okay, I understand: media is a business and in our rapacious, capitalist system, it has to make a profit first. Sadly, the profit motive often overwhelms any philosophical or ethical values about reporting (which is why every country needs a not-for-profit national media that doesn’t depend on the whims of CEOs or boards or making shareholder dividends to determine what gets covered – thank you CBC, BBC and NPR).

de Botton bemoans the news media’s obsession with facts. Well, some media, anyway. The political polarization of media has led to differing definitions of what “facts” actually are. What is a “fact” to Fox News or Sun Media may be mere anecdote or hearsay or even mere opinion to a more liberal news outlet and vice versa. Even locally we see media succumb to presenting council or administration propaganda as “fact” without challenging its authenticity. Factoids become facts.

Worse, in the internet age, all opinions have equal status, so there’s often no way to discern the difference between actual fact and someone’s opinion of it. Conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and religious claptrap get the same treatment online as news, fact, and science. And often get better reception because they appeal to our love of the supernatural and superstitious. This is why the History and Discovery TV networks fill their feed with crap: viewers care less about actual events or science than about UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot and other dreck. Or that’s what they tell us.

The problem with facts is that there is nowadays no shortage of sound examples. The issue is not that we need more of them, but that we don’t know what to do with the ones we have… What do these things actually mean? How are they related to the central question of political life? What can they help us to understand?

Well, that’s a bit simplistic. The corporate ownership of much news media has instilled in them political and sometimes personal agendas that determine how facts or presumed facts get presented.

As as we know from Fox News, misrepresentation is sometimes calculated and deliberate, done to align with a particular ideology. And that misrepresentation gets presented as “fact.” Anyone who has heard Rush Limbaugh’s show knows that outrageous lies can be presented as facts, and there are always those who will believe them. Especially if you say them often enough (a misquote incorrectly attributed to Joseph Goebbels but nonetheless relevant)

de Botton creates space for a dialogue about media, but he also meanders around his topic as if he’s not entirely comfortable with news media itself. He is overly dismissive of popular culture and taste. As if he’s a wine connoisseur being asked to sample a friend’s homemade plonk and is expected to effuse over it.

He never reads like he is the sort of news junky one expects would write about it, but more from a professorial height. He adds,

What should be laudable in a news organization is not a simple capacity to collect facts, but a skill – honed by intelligent bias – at teasing out their relevance.

Which would be laudable, indeed. But it’s clear he isn’t writing about the myriad of medium-to-small media outlets, such as our local papers, but rather the mega-media like the BBC. Media needs the editorial resources to “tease out” the relevance in a story and from what I gather, the editorial activity of local media tackles layout, rather than content or relevance (it’s certainly unconcerned with grammar, punctuation and style). Plus, he is un-attuned to the deadline that dictates so much in news media. The luxury of time to add such depth or relevance often simply doesn’t exist.

At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity, we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression.

Well, yes: we naturally want simple, direct, attainable solutions to problems. And the world is chock-a-block with problems. But those problems are often too complex, too far-reaching to succumb to simple solutions.

Look at Syria as a shining example: we want a humane solution to the plight of millions but the competing and conflicting demands of the parties – the Turks, Kurds, ISIS, rebels, Assad supporters, Russians, Saudis and others – simply don’t permit it. The carnage will continue no matter how many heart-tugging photographs of dead or wounded children get published. Can the media alter that with more comprehensive coverage? No. So where does that leave the reader? frustrated, stressed, depressed, anxious – and unable to do anything.

AN Wilson comments,

…de Botton never addresses one of the most interesting questions about the news: that is, whether the news actually creates the stories it reports. This is clearly true in relation to the lives of celebrities, about whom he seems rather confused.
But, much more dramatically, acts of terror would be pointless if they were not reported. No one would have flown aeroplanes into the World Trade Center on that fateful September day unless their actions had been guaranteed to attract the attention of news cameras all over the world.

That, too, is simplistic. With the rise of the internet and social media, such content often gets spread faster online than in traditional media. For example, the capture and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was captured on rebel cell phones and broadcast online before any news media had it. News media only reported, didn’t create the events.

But yes, I concede that the act of reporting often shapes the events. Simplicity is the foremost attraction of Donald Trump to the masses, if not the media. He promises simple solutions: a wall, extreme vetting of immigrants, firing bureaucrats, changing laws, even using nuclear weapons. It doesn’t matter if his ideas are stupid, racist, illegal or illogical. People gravitate to simple solutions to the world’s complex problems because it reduces their own stress. It’s easier to accept them than think through everything or fret over what you can’t change. And the media plays to this.

And without media attention, he would be a mere laughingstock candidate who failed to get appointed. He is in part the media’s creation.

de Botton writes:

Rather than an impression of political possibility, an encounter with the news may usher in an impression of our nothingness in an unimprovable and fundamentally chaotic universe.

Which is why, I suppose, alternate news and commentary sources have developed online: bloggers like myself, citizen journalists, NGOs and others who attempt to add context, relevance, and sometimes even solutions, turning mere news into dialogues. Outsiders often impose content into the mainstream media. Issues like microplastics in our water only became of national importance through the constant storytelling – the science, images and opinions – from outsiders.

We need more than what we get in the corporate news and, when the media fails to provide it, someone else will. Not to mention that our confidence in the media is at an all-time low (these surveys tend to examine national or large media sources; there are, to my knowledge no surveys of confidence in small or local media, but I suspect the numbers would be no higher).

One problem is in the base knowledge of those reporting. We expect our reporters to be well-versed in everything. To be aware of all the politics, science, history, bureaucracy, legislation, sociology, planning and medical issues that affect us. But they seldom are. Most reporters are specialists in one or two areas at best – sports, federal politics, movies, etc. Many, in my experience, lack both the interest in and education about other issues to cover them adequately.

This isn’t entirely negative: large media outlets can afford – even desire – specialists who focus on particular issues and areas. And that gives their writing a sense of authority: they know what they write about and care about it passionately. But in local media, content gets diluted if for nothing more than the lack of staff. When you only have one or two people in a newsroom, you need generalists with wide ranges of interests and education. They are hard to find: I have met few true autodidacts in my time.

So what can we expect when we have a single person in a local paper covering everything – sports, politics, science, medicine, pets, business, entertainment, gardening, technology, music… is it fair to expect one reporter to cover everything adequately and equally? Clearly not (especially when the editor’s minimal role is almost entirely focused on layout rather than content – let alone grammar, style and usage). And the results speak for themselves.

de Botton doesn’t even look at the problems of local coverage. Or the economics and job conditions of media, which also affect the content. He comments that the real “enemy of democratic politics” is not censorship, but rather, “draining people of political will…”

…these involve confusing, boring and distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganized, fractured and intermittent way that a majority of the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.

But perhaps the presentation is deliberately meant to align the audience to particular views, a particular ideology. The thread may be spun to create a weave of a world image meant to suit the media’s perspectives. Only certain skeins are chosen for presentation; the rest – anything that might adversely challenge the ideology – are ignored.

Just look at Fox News again. But even closer to home, look at the local papers. The stories about the town’s relationship with their municipal partners at Collus-PowerStream are often written without actually speaking to anyone outside town hall. That monocular writing confuses the readers who have no access to the other facets, the others facts (aside, that is, from this blog). Credibility is tied to this lack of objective coverage.

One of his collateral topics is photography. de Botton divides photographs into two categories: corroborative and revelatory. The former simply confirms something within a story; the latter advances our understanding or knowledge. For local media, the vast majority – well into the high 90s percentile – will be the former. Grip-n-grins, headshots of politicians, dull images of seated councillors (‘clown-cillors’ as one wag calls them) looking serious over some document. But that’s overly simplistic. de Botton writes:

We have lost any sense of photography’s potential as an information-bearing medium, as a force with a crucial job to do in terms of properly introducing us to a planet that we keep conceitedly and recklessly assuming that we know rather well already.

With which I heartedly disagree. The spread of smartphones has allowed everyone to become an instant photographer or videographer. The importance of the photograph or video has been elevated thanks to the ranks of “citizen journalists” who have been on the scene to record events in a very personal manner. A lot of this non-professional content has significantly changed the discussion about things like pollution, policing, politics.

The image of a dead child, a Syrian refugee washed ashore on a Greek isle after his boat capsized, will haunt us for decades. Much as the image of a naked girl fleeing her bombed-out village in the Vietnam war, still does. These are powerful images decades apart, and neither have lost their power. I think photography has developed into a far more powerful tool today. True, not all images are powerful or revealing, but we have a better selection to choose from today than before.

In print and online media, images also serve a third purpose: to break the monotony of the text. Sure, a photograph of Councillor Bumblestone looking supercilious does little to add to the story or explain the content. But it serves as a handy visual anchor for those rapidly scanning the page for clues. The reader recognizes him, adds the meta data that identifies the accompanying story as being about the local council, local politics. The photo serves as a visual index.

Many of his arguments strike a chord, but reading de Botton leaves me less than satisfied he has actually written a “user’s manual.” It’s more an academic thesis about the media, one written from a stratospheric perspective. Yes, we need more context, more relevance, more depth in many news stories, but can we afford the time, the energy, the attention to everything? And how does it relate to what matters most to me – local issues, local stories, local media?

de Botton’s 25 example stories come with powerful drama generated by widespread media attention. They are big stories, big issues. But local issues have a more marked impact on our own daily lives. Local corruption means a lot more to us than something happening in far-away Ottawa or Washington. In fact, we expect a certain level of corruption at a distance, and when we uncover it locally – as I have recounted in my blog this term – we are more stunned by that revelation than in, say, our own senate. it affects us, personally and intimately, in a way de Botton doesn’t examine.

I would rather have a book (or a website) that examines local stories from this perspective. Pick 25 stories about Collingwood and our region and dissect each one for relevance, context, factuality and bias. Take each one and look at the larger picture, the politics, the agendas and ideologies behind how they were written. Perhaps it’s something I might attempt in future. I’m afraid that it might be a case of mene, mene tekel upharsin for local media. But I suppose it’s what I do every time I write about local issues here.

And I suppose I won’t stop pondering the whys and wherefores of media, local and otherwise.

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