Friday, August 26, 2005

What Makes News News? A Question, Not an Answer

Certain events and issues capture public attention, whereas others do not. Lately, if you read the newspaper or watch TV newscasts, you’ll notice a tendency for professional to seize upon one issue or event after the other, like a huge herd of buffalo rushing here, then wheeling about and rushing there, always imitating each other. Excellence seems to consists of taking the and tweaking it slightly, casting on it a little different interpretation — or if you’re brilliant, a radically different one. I thought it was just a sign that the paper to which I subscribe, Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, is going downhill. But it’s a wider matter than that. The New York Times is also part of the herd. I was in New York a few months ago for several days. The Times was full of stories about the ’s and Terri Schiavo’s impending and then actual death. Page upon page repeated the same story, just as newspapers everywhere else did.

Why is this happening? What determines which stories are newsworthy — and how can there be such a remarkable degree of consensus? It has something to do with newspapers’ declining sales. Increasingly, we’re getting our news elsewhere. Probably they are all clamoring to capture the attention of the average reader, just as political parties in countries that have first-past-the-post systems must compete for the middle-range of voters by taking practically the same positions. It also may have something to do with concentration of ownership. The owners and are a tighter little group nowadays with policies that determine, to some degree (I can’t guess how much) the content of news coverage.

Maybe it also has something to do with the limited imagination of journalists. To appear up-to-the-minute, one should notice what others are discussing and write about that. As a neophyte blogger, I can already be tempted that way myself. (Thus: What shall I write about today? Let’s see. What were people discussing at my dinner party last night? If I pick up on their interests I’ll be safe.)

But what determines the of discussion at a dinner party? I’ll bet there were thousands of dinner parties last night around the world that discussed the same topics. Cindy Sheehan and the movement. Was part of a conspiracy between the KGB and the CIA? The controversy about “Intelligent Design” versus Darwinism. The declining belief in and in Chinese hospitals.

All of these topics are saleable to journalists. I haven’t read anything yet about the unpopularity of traditional Chinese medicine, which only means that it’s a highly promising topic for a journalist to pick up and develop. Oswald is very old news, of course, but the KGB-CIA angle is a fresh enough angle to make a new story. Cindy Sheehan as the “” of American public opinion and the Intelligent Design debate are the top items of actual public discourse today. Why? Or rather, why not something else?

For instance, why not the plight of the of Botswana? My guest of honor was a famous specialist on Bushman society; she can even speak their language. Yet we didn’t discuss the shocking information coming out of southern Africa about the Bushmen’s predicament. (I won’t call it “news” because you’ll only get it via an e-mail list or personal contact with someone traveling there.) The Botswana government is apparently trying to destroy the Bushman way of life. They have evicted Bushmen from the Central Kalahari and are arresting Bushmen for hunting to feed their families. The radio authority refuses to renew licenses of Bushmen to use community transmitters to contact each other or ask for medical help. Officials prevent the Bushmen’s own organization, First People of the , from talking to those on the reserve. The government is about to change Botswana’s constitution to remove any existing protection for the Bushmen. Selelo Tshiamo, one of several Bushmen tortured by officials in June, died of his injuries in August. Why is this news not covered in the Western press?

There are plenty of other salacious stories that are covered in exhaustive detail, though my particular dinner party was too highbrow to discuss them. Karla Homulka, for example. Probably this is a purely Canadian topic. For other readers, I’ll only say that Ms Homulka was convicted of assisting her then-husband in sexually torturing and murdering several young girls about a decade ago. She has now been released from prison, yet her conversations have been taped and released to the press. Newspapers are following her doings avidly — presumably because their readers also remain fascinated. Even a movie has been made about the events for which she and her partner were convicted.

I have no answer to this question: Why do we engage with certain topics but not others.? I can only answer for myself — and, even so, only partially. I avoid reading the Karla Homulka stuff (though I can’t help knowing more than I want to know) because it is about human depravity of a kind that I can do nothing about. I know there is evil in the world, but I gain nothing from wallowing in it.

I am willing, however, to engage with horrors that can perhaps be mitigated. It may be possible to help the Bushmen if attention can be mobilized — siphoned off from discussions of thrilling sexual depravity — so I’ve arranged to meet a fellow tomorrow who knows their situation well.

What about the Kennedy assassination? One of my friends is fascinated by it, and I respect him a lot. I think I don’t get caught up in it because I have a policy of disbelieving in . It’s not quite a conscious policy, because I know that there are real conspiracies in this world; it would be ridiculous to deny that they exist. Russians are particularly open to believing in conspiracies, I have noticed — possibly because they actually have more of them than we do. But my “policy” of disbelief is a psychological mechanism of self-protection. If I open myself to that line of reasoning I will begin mistrusting everyone, or at least I will have no particular reason for trusting anyone. I don’t like that state of mind, so I’ll accept the cost of rejecting it: a high probability that I’ll be taken in by deceptions of various kinds. I enjoy my naiveté because it feels good. That’s unwise, I know, but I’m willing to pay the price. I function better that way.

Here’s a news item at the back of today’s paper. I don’t think it will ever make it to the front page, though it ought to be a big headline: , appointed as US Ambassador to the United Nations through a shady maneuver, is going to scupper the UN Reform proposal that would otherwise be adopted next month. The US does not want to allow the UN to pursue poverty reduction, climate change, or nuclear . What we need is a Cindy Sheehan operation outside Bolton’s headquarters in New York. This is an item that we can and should do something about. It‘s shameful.

But the more general question remains: How can we get front-page coverage of most important topics? And how can we be sure to notice urgent human predicaments that we have an obligation to address? If you have an answer (even if you feel uncertain about it) please enter it here as a comment.


Anonymous rex said...

I enjoy the way you think!
Here's my list of 'uhp's!
A 'justice' system that perpetuates injustice.
A 'party' system that diverts us from correcting our serious social problems (& makes us focus our energies on how to 'win').
An economic system that focuses on exploitation rather than on meeting real needs.
Media systems that focus on excitement & entertainment rather than understanding the realities of harmonious living.
And the most serious endangerment of world peace: our Adolfian arrogance!

7:23 PM  

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