“Everybody complains about the weather,” said the writer Charles Dudley Warner, “but nobody does anything about it.” We could say the same about the media. Everyone complains about the media—of which, as we’ve noted, everyone takes part—but nobody does anything about it. Maybe it’s time we finally did something.
Before we can change our media habits, though, we need to find the motivation to change. So let’s start by reflecting on three basic questions to understand our relationship with news product: Why is the “news’” important? What is the purpose of the news to individuals? What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia?
Of these three questions, the first is the most difficult to answer, since no one seems to have an answer. Consider the fact that the New York Times publishes 150 articles a day (Monday-Saturday), and 250 articles on Sunday. On a planet of 7.6 billion people, there are surely more than 150 important events occurring every day, yet news outlets like the Times are the ones that determine what is “newsworthy” and hence important enough to constitute the days “news.”
What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia?
Is Princess Adelaide’s whooping cough newsworthy?
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau pondered in his most famous book, Walden, why we were so eager to find ways to bring us news from afar:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
How much of what you consume as “news” is the equivalent of hearing about Princess Adelaide’s whooping cough?
Over the next few days, spend a few moments actively pondering this question. After reading or watching any news story ask yourself why it matters to you personally and whether it was worth your time.
What is the purpose of the news to individuals? What distinguishes news from mere gossip, ephemera, or trivia? The answer to these questions is likely not what you’d think. Most people would say the purpose of the news is to keep the average person informed. But few people are even aware, much less read, the 1,150 news items produced by the Times each week. And that’s just the current events considered newsworthy by a single media outlet.
How the news destroys context
One aspect of any answer would have to include an explanation of how the story fits into a broader narrative or has an air of permanence. But news, especially daily news, is often presented in a way that strips it of its context. As C. John Sommerville explained in an article titled “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:
What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day's report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today's contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today's News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today's report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.
In the book based on the article, Sommerville also points out:
The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day's report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.
The late media critic Neil Postman once wrote that the media has given us the conjunction, “Now . . . this,” which “does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.”
“Now . . . this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this.”
This focus on change, devoid of context and connection to a greater reality, makes daily news an impediment to the acquisition of two things Christians should be seeking: wisdom and understanding (Prov. 4:5).
As Sommerville says, the news industry has to do certain things to information to sell it to us on a daily basis. We therefore also have to do certain things to information to ensure that the news doesn’t make us “dumber” but that it can help us seek wisdom and understanding. In the next article in this series, we’ll consider some of the ways we can do that by changing our media habits.