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Breaking news

April 2, 2018

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Don’t get me wrong news and current affairs are central to the health of democratic life and taking account of what is going on in the wider world is a crucial duty of any citizen of a healthy society. As John Donne famously said, “No man is an island, entire of itself” and as political and social animals we should be open to an interested in what is happening around us.

However, that said, it seems to me we have a problem about the role of news and media in our society, one which has become more challenging with the emergence of the 24 hours news cycle and the rise of social media. These issues are exacerbated by other factors such as the speed and relentlessness of change. In addition, the growth of isolation means that for increasingly large numbers the media, whether television, radio or the internet, has become a dominant form of social contact.

There are four issues, none of them new, which warrant consideration.

The first is the focus of the media on bad news. While the idea that calamity and misfortune are fascinating is not surprising, the quantity of breaking bad news, in particular, when expressed as a competition for attention between news channels adds to a sense of societal anxiety. This is, perhaps, particularly so for those for whom there are few compensatory events from real life.

The second is the tendency to narrate events through a series of polarised stereotypes. I know from my campaigning work in mental health how difficult these are to shift whether the stereotype of the “mad axeman” or that of “real men don’t get depression”. When views and attitudes are grounded in media stereotypes, rather than real life experience, they tend to be less positive. The success of Time to Change and other initiatives to improve attitudes towards mental health has been based on reconnecting people with the lived experience of mental health problems amongst their friends, family and colleagues.

The third disturbing feature is the narrow focus of the media both in terms of geography and issues. Important though President Trump is and distressing though some of his tweets are, I sense, at times, that they can attract a disproportionate level of attention when there are issues, in many parts of the world, which will struggle to secure the coverage they deserve. In this country our media continues to be London centric. This has always been obvious to someone of Welsh origin, but it also explains the level of shock represented by the Brexit vote which brought to surface many longstanding issues of concern and disillusionment which had been registering in many part of the country over a long period of time.

Finally, there is the phenomenon of fake news. Again, this is not new but, in an era, where there are so many sources of formal and informal news the scale of what is possible has grown. There are two manifestations of fake news. First the actual propagation of false information. Second the ritual denial of information on the basis of the source without a further thought about its veracity.

Looking at society, our presentation and consumption of media is fuelling both our sense of collective anxiety and the polarisation of society. The problem is exacerbated by the decline of traditional media which has to shock and shout ever more loudly to attract our attention and our collective ambivalence about the impact of social media and other online communication. They also speak loudly about the decline of some intellectual traditions in our society.

Are there remedies? I will make a couple of points about how our own actions can help.

The first is to extol the virtues of slow news. For several years we have taken “The Week”, a very good publication in many ways, but best of all for presenting the news through the lens of 7 days rather than that of the breaking headline. It is striking how often, even over a week, the focus of a story will change. History encourages us to always look at the longer term rather than just the froth of current affairs. The less rapidly we leap to conclusions the better.

The second is to be bold enough to listen to the views of those we don’t agree with our and to take the time to engage with opinions which are different from our own and about places and issues which are not the usual focus of one’s interests. Our own stereotypes can just be as destructive as those of others. The willingness to change one’s mind and modify one’s views is an underrated quality and one, which, these days requires some bravery. Above all we must be willing to avoid simple binary paradigms, real life is never as simple.

The third is to privilege the stories of real life over the media stereotypes. The complexity and genuineness of lived experience can always make it possible to think again, and, in particular, evoke in us the sense of human empathy which connects us to our fellow humans.

Finally, as someone who took a deliberate view, a couple of years ago, that starting my day with Radio 3 was better for my sense of wellbeing, I think there are times when we should force ourselves to take a break from the news and enjoy the more timeless things of life.

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2 Comments
  1. Agree strongly with all of this. Some more remedies you might find helpful:

    A subscription to the excellent magazine Positive News https://www.positive.news
    Constructive journalism https://www.constructivejournalism.org https://www.ncvo.org.uk/guide-to-constructive-journalism
    Solutions journalism https://www.solutionsjournalism.org http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/academy/entries/be8991c7-c1c7-42e6-a371-f40278838fa2

    We *can* change the news. We have to. These remedies will help us.

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