27 February 2015

Deliver Me From The News

‘If I want to know what’s happening locally?  They’ll tell me when I pop into the bar.  And if I want to know what’s happening internationally?   They’ll tell me when I pop into the bar.’

Thus said an acquaintance a few years ago, who had foresworn watching or listening to the news in favour of a more tranquil life.  To be, shall we say, so deliberately under-informed seemed an alien concept, but his words set me on an examination of my own relationship with the news.  

And it was a needy one: waking up to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, followed by dips in and out of news media on the internet, rounded off by early evening news and, even later, by News at Ten.  I couldn’t leave news alone, but neither would it take its hooks out of me.  I began to be affected by the ‘barrage of bleakness’ as Charlie Beckett put it in a recent Radio 4 programme entitled Good News is No News.   It was not merely my feeling of impotence in the face of stories of violence and cruelty, of political crassness, of greed and manipulation, or of pending environmental catastrophe which rankled, but an extreme annoyance at the manner of delivery – combative interviews, unremitting speculation, a negative agenda and doomsday scenarios.

A year or so ago, I switched allegiance in the mornings to Spanish radio on RTVE.  Quite apart from the fact that I could only understand half of its foreign sounds, which gave the impression of waking up in a tiled hostal and only a stroll away from the beach, the necessary preoccupation with all issues Spanish that did not impinge upon me gave a welcome distancing.  With less hand-wringing, I could simply listen to how interviewees were, for example, given much greater rein to answer questions without constant interruption.  Or how excitement would mount audibly when days like Los Reyes approached.  Or how gems and curiosities that made few waves here in the UK would surface, such as the story about El Pequeño Nicolás, a twenty-year-old who hoaxed his way into the highest circles, even getting in under the radar, at a reception of dignitaries, to shake the hand of the new king Felipe on the day he assumed the throne. 

Lately, however, I have forsaken even Spanish radio at sun-up, preferring a gentler entrance into the day with Solfeggio chants and a few yoga stretches.  News, I contend, especially first thing in the morning or last thing at night, can be extremely bad for you.   At a time when the ‘human race has never been healthier, wealthier or more peaceful’ (as Charlie Beckett put it in the programme Good News Is No News) notwithstanding that blood-curdling acts do happen, we are perhaps being given a distorted view.  Doom and gloom are a daily diet.  

Twenty-two years ago, the newscaster Martyn Lewis was apparently pilloried when he attempted to argue that ‘normal journalistic judgments should be applied to all stories instead of pushing positive stories automatically on to the spike.’  Warned not to challenge the status quo, with his job put on the line, he got nowhere in his efforts to start a discussion about ‘holding up a proper and sensible mirror to society’.

That the news is essentially negative was underscored by Tony Gallagher, deputy editor of the Daily Mail.  ‘The reality is that it’s a gloomy world out there and bad things happen.  And we tend to be a conduit for bad things.’  When asked by Charlie Beckett whether this was not giving an Old Testament view of a world full of plagues and disasters, he answered: ‘ It’s a tiny fragment of the real world, and it’s an extraordinary fragment of the real world, which is why we should be covering it in the depth that we are.  Of course it doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence any more than a crime thriller relates to the ordinary existence of somebody living in suburbia.  But we are competing for people’s time and their attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.’

Recently, in what could be seen as a proliferation of shocking news, media organisations have begun to apply correctives, ‘solutions-based journalism’, like ‘The Optimist’ in The Washington Post and ‘The Fix’ in The New York Times.  Huffington Post’s ‘What’s Working’ section is doing well.  ‘Stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared three times more than the combined average of all our other sections’ share rate,’ said Ariana Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief.  Jim Waterson, political editor of Buzzfeed, echoed this.  ‘Stories that are shared the most do tend to be positive – there’s something about your identity, there’s something you’re proud to support or something that you want to get involved in.  But,’ he added, significantly, ‘when there is massive news, then that overrules everything.’

If I am cautious in my own consumption of news, and seek to turn down the volume of negative in favour of more pleasing stories, does this make me ignorant?  Am I sticking my head in the sand or recognising the limits of a personal sphere of influence?  If I sometimes turn a deaf ear to the bickerings of politics, am I rejecting civic duty or aspiring to achieve what a Buddhist might describe as non-complaining mind?  If I try to appreciate what is actually going right in society (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) am I merely Pollyanna?  

Since the time of Martyn Lewis’s stance, our way of consuming news has been overturned.  It has now become our own responsibility to control and ration what we see or hear.  No longer does one, or even a set of, authoritative broadcasters hold the key to editorial control.  We can obtain news from hundreds of different news organisations and social networks.  We can watch - at times grotesque - amateur footage, as well as professional coverage of events as they unfold.  We can binge on whatever news is out there to the point of sickness or, by finding the more wholesome, seek balance.

Or we can take the occasional break, and dare to switch off the news altogether.

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