The Vast Emptiness of the Daily News

Our attention and emotional output are better spent elsewhere.

In 1846 Kierkegaard had a profound realization:

“Even if my life had no other significance, I am satisfied with having discovered the absolutely demoralizing existence of the daily press.”

He was struck by how the public reacted to the daily uptake of news, a relatively recent construct. He found that the public were no longer constrained by their locality — relegated to the news of the extended family and village. Instead, they were privy to the wider sphere of their existence — politics, trade, scandals and more.

Unlike previous eras, the public now heard a great deal about news which had little to no effect on them. What’s more, they were able to form opinions on a variety of events of which they didn’t have first-hand knowledge. However uninformed they might be, they still opined. This was a phenomena that worried Kierkegaard greatly.

Flash forward 170 years and the influx of daily news has increased by an astronomical amount. There’s no easy way to navigate this output, a single individual can’t simply read a daily paper and be fully up to speed, as was the case in Kierkegaard’s time.

Yet similarities do remain. In Kierkegaard’s time the utter majority of news had no direct effect on how the populaces lived, on how they operated their day-to-day lives. The same is true today.

An influx of news does, however, catalyse certain things within us — fear, outrage, surprise, and a bevy of other emotions — when it interacts with ideas that our important to us.

We seek out information on, and get angry about, an oil spill not because it has a direct effect on us, but because it triggers our frustration and annoyance at the perceived power of disliked institutions that tread on our environmentalist ideals. A shooting in Ohio will almost certainly have no effect on someone half a continent away, yet that removed person may feel dismay at such a death as it might, to them, represent the pre-eminence of institutionalized racism.

Over 20,000 children die a day of natural, easily preventable causes. Yet the effect that this occurrence has on us is not important because it is not ensconced within the edifice of daily news. It is what it is, a terrible occurrence, yes, but is not representative of a current event mingling with an idea to which we have some attachment. We are accustomed to this terrible tragedy.

Even beyond the boundaries of our own world of chosen ideals, we are not interested in new and provoking thoughtful discourse — we do not care about new or interesting insights, arguments of philosophy, science or the arts in the same way or at the same level we care about ongoing coverage of a celebrity sex scandal. We’re also not concerned daily about the meaning of life, the nature of language, or how consciousness is even possible. Needless to say, thinking about these daily might subject us to an existential impasse, an intellectual paralysis, but they are ideas which are fundamentally more important to us than any singular removed event.

Certainly it can be argued that websites, podcasts, and magazines deal with philosophical, artistic, or humanistic issues on an ongoing basis, but they hardly have the emotional impact or level of response of a minor politician in a far off city embezzling funds. What would it take for the daily news to write a piece on the explanation of a poem, a philosophical insight on our methods of living, or a breakdown of how the average Cambodian lives their day? Do these issues truly affect us any less than most daily news stories?

But these questions only trigger more: How is it that we decide how to bound the limits of what we care about? Why does the predictable deaths of thousands of children, or vast cosmological quandaries not trigger the emotional response in our brains that the daily news, filled with sensational headlines, trigger? Why are removed political, cultural and sociological events so immediately emotionally impactful when broader ideas are barely considered? Isn’t humanism important? Isn’t existentialism important?

I don’t pretend to have an answer. Likely it is a confluence of reasons involving identity, ideology and the media. If we are, however, to be the least bit rational about these issues, we must consider how we draw the boundaries of what triggers our daily emotional output, our capacity to care about what we hear about. The daily news demands our attention — it screams at us for it. But it also reflects what we want to hear. If we make the daily news care about new, different ideas such as our existential place or our collective humanism rather than events sequestered from their context but rife with hot button intrigue, perhaps we can prove Kierkegaard wrong. Maybe the daily press won’t still be the demoralizing entity he saw it to be.