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The Nature of News Can Make the World Feel Grimmer Than It Is
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The Nature of News Can Make the World Feel Grimmer Than It Is

Paul Marshall

News, what we read in the papers, watch on TV or hear on the radio, is many things. Basically, it is what we pay attention to in order to learn about things that we don’t immediately experience.

But news has several elements. Three of these are what is important, what is locally important, and what is unusual, and the third of these can raise problems if it confused with the other two.

The first is to hear about things that are important to us and to nearly everyone that we know. Such as that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Germans surrendered, Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, there is a new virus that will kill tens of thousands of us and devastate our economy. These affect our own lives and those around us and we desparently want to know about events and how we should respond to them.

I am a creature of Washington, D.C. and so read and watch and hear several dozen news sources each day, taking care to sample sources across the political and ideological spectrum. Also, since I am affiliated with several Washington think tanks, I am able to access informed expert views without the intermediation of journalists, some of whom might be not so well informed. I am comparatively a creature of this voracious news-consuming universe.

A second element of news is things that are locally important to us, but maybe not to many others. Hence, despite my being a denizen of DC swampland, probably the news I actually check most often is the weather forecast or traffic conditions. These will probably affect most of our days more immediately than more sweeping reports from further afield, such as on China policy. My guess is that the weather forecast is the source accessed more than any other by Americans. (though perhaps horoscopes are more widely read).

A third element of the news is a focus on the unusual, and here problems begin.

Our news media report not only what happened today, or this week, but particularly emphasize what was unusual today and this week.

Note that this is not a criticism of journalists and news media themselves. Undoubtedly, there are criticisms to be made, especially in these polarized times. But my point here is not about the conduct of a profession or business, but about the nature of news itself, regardless of who reports it.

Consider: if Fred was murdered yesterday, it will rightfully be in the news. But he millions and millions of people, nearly everyone, who were not murdered, or attacked, will not be in the news. If a plane crashes, it will rightfully be in the news. The hundreds of thousands of flights that arrived safely to their destination will not be reported. The protests against government coronavirus lockdowns will be covered, but not the vast majority of people who accept the lockdowns, or else criticize them and grumble but go along because they believe it is their civic duty.

Again, let me reiterate that this is not a criticism of journalists and news media themselves. It is a statement about the nature of “news” no matter who reports it. We, the audience, are not interested in articles about Sally who went to work as usual and then spent the evening with her family as usual, and we know that the vast majority of people are not interested either. Good for Sally, but it is not news.

What would be news would be if Sally did not return home because something terrible had happened to her—a car accident or a mugging—something unusual.

This is another way of repeating the media slogan –“If it bleeds, it leads.” This sounds crass, but would you as a reader, watcher or listener pay much attention to the news if it simply covered the lives of ordinary people, or automobiles, or airlines to whom nothing dramatic, not even something good, happened?

And here is a problem. With this particular focus on the unusual, our media necessarily give us a systematically distorted view of the world. At the risk of pedantry, let me reiterate that this is not a criticism of journalists and news media themselves. It is part of the nature of news. One of the things news does, among the other items covered above, is highlight the unusual, the strange, the different.

This means that in their nature the media do not reflect only what is happening in our world. By their nature they are biased to the strange, the unusual, the serendipitous in our world.
This means that if we seek to understand our world though our media then we will necessarily have a systematically distorted view of the world is. (All together now: “this is not a criticism of journalists and news media themselves”). It is the very nature of the beast, it is part of what “news” necessarily is.

So, for example, we are reading of protests against COVID-19 shutdowns. They are certainly occurring, but the vast majority of people, left and right, are following the shutdown rules. A remarkable 82% of people have approved of what their local government is doing, according to Gallup. But the nature of media coverage polarizes us in a way that our direct everyday interactions do not.

How do we respond to this inevitable structural misrepresentation of a normal world by media?

One, and the most important one, which should fundamentally shape our lives, is simply refusing to concede that what is given in our news is the way the world is. It is a world that among its exemplary reports emphasizes the unusual, the conflictual, the dramatic, not the usual, the routine the everyday that marks most of our lives. It does not reflect the world that actually we live in each day.

One other partial response is still media but very local media. I here have access to local neighborhood listserves, and now have masks, free from a gracious lady who leaves them outside her house. Another makes them and hangs them from her washing line—free for the taking—and no one takes too many. This is still a type of news, but not of the unusual, unless you think that these activities of neighbors are unusual. These are pretty typical of our local interactions. So learn about these.

Another basic response is simply to trust what we personally see and hear each day. This will not give us information about Pearl Harbor, or ISIS, or Congress, nor the latest virus toll. But it will balance the necessarily distorted picture given of the world by our media, no matter their professional restraints.

Trust what you see and hear and learn each day from the actual human beings around you. Be questioning, though not denying, about what you do not hear and see.

Read in Religion Unplugged

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