The need to ‘know’ is the need to be a ‘good citizen’. The news rests on notions of virtue and responsibility in a way that the consumption of other narratives does not: reading poetry every day won’t make you a good lover, but reading the news will deem you a decent citizen. Take the Athenian citizen-viewer – citizen-viewer because in Ancient Greece, drama was part of public life, shaping and playing with their conscience as political beings. Tragedy plays were impactful because they were taking place at specific times of the year. Shock and outrage relied on this infrequency. The news takes it as a given that we consume responsibly – that we hit the right balance between rational judgement and emotional responsiveness. Surely, we know how to separate our own anxiety from the collective one, to apply perspective, to contextualise, to detach when appropriate, to wait for further commentary etc. Marc Greif writes: “The claims that fictional dramas exist to ‘excite’, ‘thrill’ or ‘entertain’, like the claims that news exists to ‘teach’, or to ‘let us know’ or ‘be responsible’ have become increasingly incoherent or irrelevant, modelled as they are on viewings of single, focused events”.
“Stay briefed”. The news has no choice but to keep briefing you. It has a very unambiguous mission of delivering information. And then, it’s ‘up to you’ to take it in. We do see commentary and analyses but our most frequent and memorable interaction with current affairs is bulletins, statements and notifications. A week later, developments on the same piece of news will come up, but this will form a thread, not a patient understanding. Many ask if with so much information, normally negative, we became numb. Greif disagrees. Maybe we really have seen enough, but being able to watch a disaster without strong emotion triggers a sense of achievement – the “paradoxically calm satisfaction” of having witnessed another extreme without being tormented by it. The motivations to stay informed are really interesting, and so is the idea that our responses are straightforward because the gravity of the facts is. As a kid in front of the 6pm news, I remember I would keep an eye on my dad’s reactions. A calm face is a face that knows better. And now that I know better and can weigh up situations myself, I’m not sure what should surprise me and what shouldn’t.
The news assumes our curiosity is globally oriented because our world is globalised – that somehow we have reached new levels of sympathy for the human condition because crises are encountered everywhere and we are made aware. It’s not that we don’t care to pay attention. It’s that it distills very little. The news speaks with a vocabulary of urgency and novelty when it’s the same five to ten stories with different protagonists. How is it that we pay attention to a play about the Romans or a novel about Victorians, subjects that are so far away from us? Because art knows how to talk to us. Art distills and picks out the universals of experience. The news, with its “facts not fiction” motto (a sensible motto) loses sight of something important: that we are stimulated by narratives we relate to.
This is why de Botton suggests news reporting could borrow a few principles from art (and it has to a degree. Good photojournalism does that). “We have no idea what it’s like to go to school or visit the hairdresser in Bolivia […] and we are equally in the dark about office life in Turkmenistan and what people do on the weekend in Algeria. Because clearly, violent disruptions and tragic incidents become prioritized – not “the lunchtime ritual of eating tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves in a bucolic field overlooking the River Jordan”. Yet, scenes like this draw us closer to the mundane days and habits of different populations. I have little interest in the modest hopes and expectations of a person far away from me unless I identify with them in some small level – unless I am pushed to see the moments that belong to all of us. It is only then that I can claim to have a genuine concern; one that goes beyond my need to re-affirm my being ‘woke’ and self-congratulate for knowing what happened last week in various countries.
We use vague phrases like “Society is the way it is”. “This is capitalism for you”, “This is an institutional failure.”. What ‘society’? Capitalism where? The news, cumulatively, gives the impression that our condition is fundamentally unimprovable. When we do point fingers more specifically, we’ll find a scapegoat, or we’ll say “The current prime minister messed up”. Maybe they did. Maybe their foreign policy or immigration agenda are flawed, but probably no more than their predecessor’s. “What the news seldom bothers to mention is why things don’t change very much; why great power and resources can’t solve our difficulties at a stroke.” Though we recognise change (a new trade agreement, a deterioration of relations, climate change), we’re not very good at tracing it.
It would be ironic for me to say that we point to impersonal forces too much, while I say “the news”. The people behind them, probably with the exception of weather forecasters, are as confused as we are. The news responds to a demand. I signed up for The Economist thinking how great it was they could distribute analyses week by week. Lately, every time I open the mailbox, I groan a bit as if the delivery person could withhold it to let me keep up. Clearly, in the span of a week, most pieces on current developments say the same thing in different words. There will come a time when we will soberly weigh up what is happening. In the meantime, there are emerging fields like slow journalism, a hopeful antidote to the speed of the mainstream press. In the meantime, we can watch cynically or we can watch less. The news is neither a sinister force, nor heavily orchestrated. Neither good nor bad. It reflects our fears and what we want to see. We can learn to be more patient, read when we really want to and wait for dust to settle. The news distills nothing in real time, but it can distill a lot if we let time tell.
Very interesting reads
→Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual, London, 2015.
→Mark Greif, Against Everything: On Dishonest Times, London, 2017.
All quotes above are from these two.