Too much news

Arguments against abundance

Jeff Jarvis

Ev Williams has argued that we have too much news. And that is why — perhaps in penance for overdosing the world with updates through his earlier creations, Twitter and Blogger — he created this Medium for ideas.

Now on the one hand, I could argue — have argued — that we should spread wide the umbrella we call journalism and news to include most anything new that could matter to most anyone. I often tell the story of a girls’ ballet school in New Jersey that posted this under the tab “news” on NJ.com: “The leotards are in.” To the little prancers, that was indeed breaking news. In my state, I can certainly say we don’t have enough news and enough news people covering our 565 towns and other assorted outlets for malfeasance and incompetence.

But I could — and now will — argue the opposite: that journalism should occupy the very highest rung of a ladder of information. Journalism should add value to the flow of information that now occurs without it, confirming facts and debunking rumors and getting answered the questions that have not been asked. Journalism should add context, explanation, understanding. Journalism should have an impact on its world, counting not unique users or pageviews but instead ourcomes and improvements. Journalism, then, is precious and scarce. We need less journalism, better journalism.

I’ve just read Alain de Botton’s fascinating rumination on journalism, The News: A User’s Manual, which puts me in the mind of asking whether we have too much news. At the end, he says:

We have evolved from humans who lived in societies where not much ever changed — and whether any change that did occur was liable to be very significant, and perhaps life-threatening. From this background, we have inherited a cognitive frailty as regards novelty: we immediately suppose that the news must also be the important. It isn’t always.

If the news is defined first as things that happen, then — with witnesses and sensors and data able to report an eventually infinite roster of occurrences — news becomes a frightening overload. “To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity,” de Botton says. Paring down that litany to what editors or even algorithms deem important — newsworthy — is the wrong way to approach the problem. So is prioritizing your available pool of reporters and decreeing that what they have the time to cover is news. So is measuring what you already serve to people by the attention they give it–the pages with the most views win; indeed, that metric is corrupting.

It is worthwhile to take the deep breath de Botton provides, stand back, and ask what news is and how to use it. A few cues from the many passages I highlighted in the first half of his short book (and I hope he will not mind the copious quoting).

Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher.

Sobering thought, eh? Is the news a good teacher? Well, the only way to answer that would be to measure not what we read but instead what we know. De Botton would have us design news as a curriculum.

This project has a utopian dimension to it. It not only asks what news currently is; it also tries to imagine what it could one day be. To dream of an ideal news organization shouldn’t suggest an indifference to the current economic and social realities of the media; rather it stems from a desire to break out of a range of pessimistic assumptions to which we may have become too easily resigned.

He suggests a role for news in moving past facts–or as we like to call them now, data.

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…. [W]e should perhaps be more generous towards bias. In its pure form, a bias simply indicates a method of evaluating events that is guided by a coherent underlying thesis about human functioning and flourishing.

For example?

One could imagine a news outlet with a psychoanalytic bias, focusing on issues of guilt and envy on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, alive to the idea of projection in political debates and highly sceptical that ‘depression’ had set in across the country because the economy had contracted by 0.1 per cent or indeed that happiness was inevitable because it was set to expand by 1.3 per cent. What should be laudable in a news organization is not a simple capacity to collect facts, but a skill–honed by intelligent analysis–at teasing out their relevance

Right. I have been arguing that news organizations should know us as individuals rather than as a mass to give us greater relevance as people. De Botton is also arguing for a higher relevance to society, not as a mass but as a well-functioning organism.

Central to modern politics is the majestic and beautiful idea that every citizen is–in a small but highly significant way–the ruler of his or her own nation. The news has a central role to play in the fulfillment of this promise, for it is the conduit through which we meet our leaders, judge their fitness to direct the state and evolve our positions on the most urgent economic and social challenges of the day. Far from being incidental features of democracies, news organizations are their guarantors.

Many journalists would haughtily agree. But do they meet that high standard? De Botton does not think so.

And yet the news as it exists is woefully short on the work of coordination, distillation and curation. We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind.

De Botton is not arguing for more serious news — broccoli news. He is arguing to make serious news more relevant and thus compelling. He is not arguing to cover the extraordinary more often. Instead, he argues the value of covering the ordinary, of defining what life looks like for other people–especially in other lands: “65 million people go to bed every night without murdering or hitting anyone.”

The news may present itself as the authoritative portraitist of reality. It may claim to have an answer to the impossible question of what has really been going on, but it has no overarching ability to transcribe reality. It merely selectively fashions reality through the choices it makes about which stories to cast its spotlight on and which ones to leave out.
Herein rests an enormous and largely uncomprehended power: the power to assemble the picture that citizens end up having of one another; the power to dictate what our idea of ‘other people’ will be like; the power to invent a nation in our imaginations.

The latter emphasis is mine. That is indeed a high calling, a high form of advocacy. He asks the news not to put up a mirror just to reality. He asks the news to paint a picture of the possible. And I get in trouble for being an optimist.

While helping society by uncovering its misdeeds and being honest about its pains, the news should not neglect the equally important task of constructing an imaginary community that seems sufficiently good, forgiving and sane that one might want to contribute to it.

Ah, but he’s not so much an optimist that he sees us all as cherubs flying in a fleecy firmament. No, he sees cause for anger–and believes anger is also “at root a symptom of hope: that the world can be better than it is.”

In its thwarted optimism, the news is the disillusioned progeny of the Enlightenment. Refusing to square with human nature, it allows our hopes to smash constantly against the same shoals; it greets every new day with faux cherubic innocence, only to stoke up rage and disillusionment at our condition by nightfall. It posits the potential existence of a perfect world which is forever almost within reach but then curiously slips out of grasp at every step of the political process. It doesn’t do us the favour of conceding that in many respects we are a fundamentally–rather than incidentally–incorrigible species and that we would at key moments be wise to forgo hysterical annoyance for deep and quiet melancholy.

In other words, he hopes for the news to give us relevance and hope and realism together.

De Botton goes on to examine investigative journalism and gaffe journalism and other offshoots of the form. I enjoyed the first half of his essay most: the challenge to reconsider the news. He then applies his challenge to six genres of coverage: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption.

I would like to see every journalism teacher assign students to do likewise. One of the greatest challenges–the greatest impediments to innovation–we face in our field is our desire to aspire to what was. I constantly challenge my students to question the assumptions about news–its forms, its relationships to the public, its business models–that spring from the means of manufacturing and distribution that we have had since Gutenberg and that we are now freed from by Berners-Lee. Whether you like de Botton’s answers, I don’t care. I like his questions.

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

    Jeff Jarvis

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    Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

    Whither news?

    Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism