There is perhaps no topic able to demand respect and attention as much as The News. The cheapness of printing by the 1800s allowed for daily news released at different hours – some morning, afternoon, evening posts, depending on the jurisdiction. In 1804 it was most famously The Times, with its printing press able to print out over a thousand impressions an hour that spread it into a national paper. (Making Times New Roman the default font in the process). The majority of the earliest newspapers from the 16-1700s – the earliest was the English Gazette of 1666 – were as few as four pages long. From then papers got longer, until radio news took off in the 1930s and television news took off from the 1940s: it routinely featured a modest fifteen minute update in the evening, after dinner.
But today news is constant and spread onto us without our consent: we choose to consume the news like we choose to use currency: it is no choice. And so rampant is it, that news stories that are not really news find their way into our feeds and shop shelves, as in the redundant headline of “a study has found that dementia may be curable”: that is, pointlessly reporting that something might be the case, or an upsetting tweet becomes headlined into attention for the angry responses it garners rather than the effect the tweet will not have. Anonymous sex stories will find their way to the popular counselling part of newspapers, despite many problems being recurring if one investigates the archives. The most important news often related to climate change, or, say, the refugee crises are sidelined by the news about topics which have no ramifications beyond the immediate week.
The News, then, despite its monolithic definite article ‘the’ is not a whole entity but a mess of threads which tell about events, representing some to the deficit of others, creating events out of what would not be an event without the commentary. Reporting on terrorism in London, for instance, as the most salient interest ignites fears in the audience of being a victim oneself. It being more likely you will be stabbed in London though, because underreported, is not an issue in public consciousness. Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman has explained the scare phenomenon as an availability cascade: the public lifts memories from media and has a response because of reported incidents being recalled, not statistical logic which is unavailable to most new s consumers.
Consider the encouraged importance of celebrity outfits or the threat of economic predictions become-self-fulfilling prophecies (gossiped worries; investments down) in the newsy commentary on them, rather than in the events themselves. For if the creators of the news did not bother to represent or frame such events they would gain spare attention, not be as eventful. Of course, public appetite or consumer demand for news makes news outlets release what is popular and therefore profitable, but the extent to which the loop of consumer and creator are stuck in a circle of blame is ignored by the naturalising of The News as important because, onto-logically: “of course the news is important!”
No, the majority of news is forgettable and rarely new at all. Tellingly the asinine phrase of Twitter ‘it’s what’s happening’ confuses frivolous or damaging commentary with the material world. And this worries because as the philosopher Hegel suggests, society becomes modern when, as Alain De Botton writes in The News: A User’s Manual“The News replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority”.
And in the liberal democracies, with developed economies the deference for the news parallels the deference and devotions of religious communities; but The News is unconcerned about your well-being, and own interests as Noam Chomsky famously outlined in Manufacturing Consent. Neither does the news teach or actually inform, but mostly deliver orphaned information. Vulgar curiosity has a lot to do with what we click on and talk about, but a realisation of the tropes of The News is enlightening. What we thought new and revelatory is actually repetitive: history repeats itself, in patterns, like the below.
Crime: murder, rape, incest, fraud fulfills our morbid curiosity and catharsis for justice and substituted pain.
Natural Disaster: tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption fulfills our morbid curiosity and catharsis for substituted pain.
Accidental Disaster: car, plane, bicycle, crash fulfills our morbid curiosity and catharsis for substituted pain.
Celebrity Status: interview, death, coupling, marriage. The jet-class substitutes for our saints whom we admire and would like to be. Participating vicariously provides an escapist power fantasy.
Economic oscillations: economy is growing or getting smaller, people disagree as to how and why for reasons the audience cannot ascertain or learn in the broadcast slot or article.
Political scandal: a human in a high and mighty position has said or enacted something dubious or incorrect in the context presented. It can genuinely be scandalous but usually centres on persona rather than policies, and anyway politicians need to be bad.
Health: a study or studies has found that dementia, for example, could be aided by a drug. This appeals to the progress of science making our lives better and the optimism of reducing suffering.
Conflict: an attack, battle, war or threat is discussed which allows us to experience the thrill vicariously, to symapthise, yet feel more comfortable appreciation for our privileged circumstances.
These tropes distort the world as millions consume their manifestation: conflict, for instance, reportage of terrorist attacks distort the statistical reality that being in an attack is hugely improbable: it inspired terrified indignation to visit London during the attacks where it wouldn’t glamour presented – yet statistically more dangerous – Miami. These tropes are presented as new – baffling, outrageous, incredible – events by outlets that sometimes claim to not be biased, which is impossible. These tropes present a Recency Bias of the news as the most important recent events having effects rather than themselves being products of overarching Big Picture events among irreducible causes and needs, not to mention the left-out or distorted, or simply the shared narratives (or not shared, because not news outlet dominated) which constitute our world.
These patterns and the prestige of news blind us to paying attention to what the news actually is, to what matters, and to changing our selves and circumstances. If it comes to news pay for it and rely on state, like the BBC.
Of course there is no getting rid of the news monolith or collusive media but each reader, each consumer can spare themselves with a critical awareness of what is actually important with an aggregator – rather than what we are merely told is; often because, well, it’s ‘The News’.