Friday, February 28, 2014

Reflections on the news itself and how one thinker considers its failings

While serving as an "untrained" free-lance journalist, in a local television news department I recall one argument with the then news director over the "lead" I had put on a story about a possible tax hike by city hall, for the following year. I had said, "Council will meet on Wednesday evening to attempt to reduce what could be a 3% tax hike for local citizens" and the news director vehemently informed that that he wanted, "The city faces a 3% tax hike next year"....as his way of grabbing listeners, and making headlines.
I did not agree with him them and I do not agree with him today as I listen to and read all kinds of news reports that either distort or simplify their information for the purpose of "growing the business" of the news outlet. While there is and cannot be anything that can be called "objective" news reporting, merely by the fact that whoever is writing the story will select and arrange facts in a manner that discloses his/her viewpoint, with the new mountain range of information that we are capable of gathering and storing today, reporters and editors have an even more complex challenge that they did when the news director and I had that exchange.
Curating, editing, balancing, and educating their readers/listeners/viewers is a much more complex endeavour than telling them where the city council is in its deliberations over the tax rate for the following year, something that the news departments of every city considers important.
And, while it is somewhat facile and easy to report on a possible tax increase, we almost never read or hear about which members of a local government are seeming to ally with others and which general direction and ideology and preferences and traditions they are taking and preserving. Just as the daily stock numbers are constantly included in all "important" news casts, demonstrating more of the dependence of the news outlets on the financial and business sectors than the relative significance of those numbers for the viewing/listening/reading audience.
Of course, the nature of the arguments and the positions, collated and presented as a function of the city hall news reporter's job, would take a level of digging and interpretation and judgement and subtlety and sophistication that most news directors would consider "above" their average audience member's capacity.
Nevertheless, directing the story to an average twelve-year-old's intellect is never going to raise the standard for either the reporters or the audience.
It is another example of the patronizing attitude that plagues too many of our businesses and corporations and governments that the "people do not understand" just how complex the work of these organizations really is, and so the news departments have an obligation to "spoon feed" them as if they were still sitting in a grade six classroom in the local elementary school.
Alain de Botton, philosopher, essayist and documentary producer. Author of “The News: A User’s Manual.” Also author of “Art As Therapy,” “How To Think More About Sex,” “Religion For Atheists” and “A Week At the Airport.” (@alaindebotton), recently appeared as a guest on On Point with Tom Ashbrook, outlining his philospher's perception that we are overwhelmed with the amount of information and the seriousness with which it is presented, especially on the 'evening news' on national television programs, and the undernourishment that we feel as  students and consumers of the news.
While it sparked an interesting conversation, and exposed many holes in the news coverage , for example, in the lead-up to 9-11 and to the stock and financial crisis of 2008, both of which took the world by surprise, de Botton's book is one that all actively participating citizens would be well advised to read.
It is not a book merely for intellectuals, nor for journalism instructors in our colleges and universities although it would naturally be required reading for them, but it sheds a bright light on an industry whose roots have long ago been declared obsolete, and whose current practitioners are deeply and earnestly attempting to preserve them. We need more broadly trained and deeply thoughtful and intellectually gifted young men and women to take up the task of observing and telling the stories that are increasingly demanding a level of both insight and courage, as we watch more and more political and thought leaders find even more sophisticated ways to mask their full and true intentions....and serve their own interests at the expense of the public interest.
While there is also a need for deep and profound training and learning in many specialties, in order to be able to report on those files, there is also a need for those with general yet still deep and profound general learning and training to be able to connect the dots of the meaning of various stories with each other and present those connections in ways that stimulate public debate.
We are all attempting to "generate a healthy society" not merely expose some sensational isolated pieces of information, and most can probably agree with de Botton in that assessment of the role of the news departments and their directors, rather than holding rigidly and firmly to the dictum of "balance" so that reports of "genital mutilation" will require a defender and an opponent of that subject in order to preserve that holy grail, balance.

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