We are apparently downing in news, and lack the tools to make sense of it. Journalists just churn out more of the stuff, without pausing often enough to suggest what it all means. Schools and universities don’t teach us how to make sense of it.
My words but, if I understood correctly, Alain de Botton’s thoughts, as expressed in one of his witty and thought-provoking talks this week to promote his new book The News: A User’s Manual.
Alain is a national treasure, a deeper-thinking person’s Stephen Fry, and if we had a Philosopher Laureate he’d be the perfect fit. I loved his book on Status Anxiety, and the only person I’d rather listen to on religion is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Revd and Rt Hon Lord Williams (he’s our new Chancellor , and I’m looking forward to his graduation speeches).
But is Alain, who was talking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, in deeper water than a Somerset farmer, with his thoughts on news?
Information overload is nothing new; it’s not a 2014 crisis. Victorian publishers produced catch-up journals to help readers filter the news, and my own study of the Daily Timesaver of 1901 shows how it was a preoccupation at the dawn of the century before last. That one-off newspaper offered readers a tabloid filter, through which the news was condensed so it could be read in 60 seconds (it couldn’t, in reality). Thankfully, we have far better filters today: Twitter, used smartly, provides a manageable daily digest of just what you want. So if you are still drowning, just change your filters. Gazing at a river of news? Don’t dam it up and sit in it; dip your toes in, and catch what you want as it flows by.
If we are drowning in anything, it might in fact just what Alain thinks we’re lacking: meaning, or at least journalistic attempts to provide it. In fact, we’re awash with it. If you want to know what all that bite-sized stuff on News at Ten means, just switch over when it finishes and watch Newsnight on BBC2. Buy the Daily Mail, in print, and find out one version of who’s behind all the misery. If you don’t like that, try a quality weekend paper and read comment, analysis, features and debate that ranges from flippant to ultra-brow. Watch a documentary, or listen to a talk show. Read resurgent long-form for depth and humanity. Try this crowd-funded site with 25,000 subscribers (that’s more than the daily readership of many regional evening papers) which aims to “uncover, explain and highlight deep-lying structures and long-term developments that powerfully shape our world, rather than reporting on the latest hype, scare, or breaking news story.” Just what Alain wants. Everyone’s talking about the news; it’s deafening, but some of it makes a lot of sense. This isn’t news, but some of it is journalism. News struggles to deliver meaning; journalism in its broader sense tries to do almost nothing else.
Or just work it out yourselves. Alain’s view of the news has a hint of the magic bullet about it – a sense that journalists fire news at a passive audience numbed by the onslaught. But we now know there’s an active audience out there, creating meaning regardless of what the news-makers intended. True, some of the audience can be wildly wrong, about almost everything. But the social media-sphere is alive with DIY comment, some of it superb and better than anything you’ll read in the papers. The news is not a lecture that we struggle to understand; it’s a conversation that we’re all already having.
But Alain’s right that we don’t always plumb the real depths of what is meant by all these news events. There are, surely, some lessons in life going unlearnt from the news, and any help is appreciated.
Such help is found on the web pages of Alain and his friends’ new online newspaper, the Philosopher’s Mail, which is a wonder to behold. News about the storms ‘recalibrates our sense of ourselves’, it says; Simon Cowell’s lifestyle reminds us that ‘the fears of ageing can’t be calmed by money or success’; Taylor Swift’s legs teach us all sorts of unexpected things; and so on. These stories that we love to read have a resonance that we probably already understood but, just in case, thank you Philosopher’s Mail for helping out.
Beneath it all, though, the thing that strikes me the most about Alain’s venture into journalism is its humanity. I sent a Tweet to the Philosopher’s Mail about the needless density of some of its language, and someone there Tweeted right back, saying thanks and we’ll have a look at it. They were so polite they made me feel like a troll. Check out the Twitter feeds around Alain and his Mail: respectful, constructive, helpful. As I write, one enquirer has just received a reply that says ‘totally good, deepest thanks, apologies’. When’s the last time you read that in a ‘real’ newspaper? It’s not a newspaper’s job to be nice, and they should get angry, hitting the right targets with a passion. But there’s a cruel and vindictive strain in some journalism that doesn’t do much good for anyone involved in it. It was recently captured here rather well by Adam Curtis, in a long but gripping read that exposes the horrors of the worst kind of reporting.
So here’s to more depth, more thinking, more humanity, (and more Alain), even if there’s already a little more it out there than he would have us think.
NB (on my list of gripes was Alain’s suggestion that people don’t study what news means, but I will skip that because Dr Kerry Moore at Cardiff University has already explained that we do. Incidentally, Alain started his most recent talk by saying ‘yes, I know people do media studies’, which suggests he was listening.)