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Monday, February 27, 2012

nothing new(s)

Today at the office the conversation turned to the media and their habit of only reporting bad news. It started with some mentions about news in Kenya. i sat there thinking how formulaic it always is, poltics, hunger and corruption following each other in an inevitable trinity of tragedy. So the question is are journalists to blame for bad news?

Here’s the thing it’s easy to blame journalists, they report the bad news. They don’t unearth good news and give us stories of survival unless they are immediately attached to some horror or the other. All we have is drudgery and death, all we get is misery and mayhem. Why is it like that unless it’s because the people seeking out the news only care about what’s bad. Selling newspapers is the first consideration, the effect on the people, the misery constant bad news brings is only secondary.

This is why this argument breaks down for me; Given, economics is the driver of many of our businesses. If a company is a legal person then their nourishment, the very air they breathe is profits. Their motivation is run by the need to gain profit. Economic concerns are the major problem. But why is it that a consideration of economics leads to a reporting of bad news. Why is it there exists a proverb like no news is bad news?

Mirrors have to face inward at some point and this may be it. The newspapers printed aren’t sold to TV reporters only and the tv news isn’t just watched by print journalists. It’s not journalists running the demand of these things up its normal, ordinary people. People attracted by grime and grim news, people drawn to stories of drama and disaster, people in need of conflict and corrosion. Look at the movies we watch, the books we read. There has to be something at stake, something interesting almost otherworldly when compared to our daily lives. At gossip sessions the most rapt people are those surrounding the one with a story so juicy it stains the reputation of others.

We like bad news, we love it as a people and so it is provided to us free of charge, entertainment that has the added value of being free and there’s the thrill of it having real life consequences and results. We want to see the accidents reported on and we thrive on the election scandals. But that’s not all of us. Some are better adjusted than others and some don’t want the bad news. There are interesting stories that uplift the soul, filling it with joy and hope,  that’s what a lot of people want.

Maybe it’s easier to sell a sad story, easier to dress up a tragedy and make it appealing, maybe its laziness. Maybe it’s not just human nature that makes us like this. What if its because all we have been brought up on is a diet of misery that we don't know what to do with a plate of joy? It is possible that conditioning has changed us and the effect of the media on us is so much huger than we like to admit. So huge that it even changes the way we perceive it and decide for us what we would like from it.

The most read things in the world are newspapers, TV news is omnipresent, the internet has more news than porn, well that was hyperbole if you stack up all the sites that aren’t porn against the ones that are, porn wins, more bad news. Our souls may have been wired to look for the good but the incessant badgering of the bad changed our minds on us making us think this was what we wanted. Maybe we aren’t happy when we watch bad news and sad stories; maybe we just think we are.

But this begs the question of when this started. There was a time before touch button news before all you needed was a server to get the news. There was a time of strife and stress where getting the news involved work and smoke. It involved birds and being atop horse or leg for days. Back then there was no good news. Who would send long messages of happiness when the sad messages were so much more important? A village dying of an epidemic is something the next village needs to know, a foreign war is important, a drought, blight on the crops these are titbits that need to spread.

And isn’t that one function of the media to warn and spread bad news. To ask for assistance and help, to report on the earthquake so that we know about it and can send help, to report on massacres so we can seethe in collective international outrage which only blossoms into action when oil is needed. To hear about disease outburst so that we are ready with the vaccines. To know, just to know what’s happening in the world.

If you consider that bad news is infinitely more important than good then you start to see that the news shaped the media long before the media had a chance to shape us. The news changed the purveyors of it. It gave them a duty to say what was wrong, to collect the evils unpunished and the diseases unchecked. The news was important and still is so that we can know to do something. So the very nature of what was important made it necessary for the media transmitting it to change.

It helps to remember that journalists are human beings and they are human beings surrounded by tragedy. They aren’t gleeful at the sight of it especially when their whole lives are steeped in it. It soaks their socks and fucks with their fingers. Day after day they are out there reporting on something that’s sad and horrible. It’s where they spend their days. We’re shocked by the excesses of our politicians, journalists are cynical, we are horrified at the effects of a famine, they are jaded. The emotions they bury in relation to the work they do are so far beyond our normal comprehension. It’s the shutter between the camera and the man, the pen and the journalist. It’s a requirement that life must be lived not feeling as fully as other people can because then it will leak through and cause permanent damage.

This is not the life people choose for themselves. Artistic tendencies bring people into journalism, a flair for writing, a skill at photography. All these are gifts that require a certain amount of communing with nature, require you to develop a certain rapport with your fellow man and the earth you inhabit and having this extra sensitivity you are exposed daily to the excesses of man and nature. It gets wearing pretty soon. But your talent turns into a responsibility to make a show of the world, to refract your vision of the world and show it as news. Sad news, heart-breaking news day in, day out.

Think of the doctor who takes your x-rays, as soon as the machine is switched on he hides behind his lead protection leaving you to suck in the light. This is because  of the potential of daily exposure, too much of anything soon becomes dangerous. Think of the x-ray as the misery of the world and the doctor as the one who brings it into your life. It’s too much and they are hurt by its glare constantly turning crispy and for what?

The argument comes down to whether we control the market or the market controls us running amok and doing what it thinks is best with humans having at best a consultative status. This is it. There are considerations of human interest and the age old responsibility messengers have to deliver messages of value to us. But we would rather believe that it is the harsh light of economics that dispels the need for better, well happier news.

Is it easier to give the people what they want or to trick them into wanting something else? That’s the ultimate question when it comes to why there is always bad news. Could it be that people like bad news or is it that they are led to believe they do?

Granted the revelling in misery is too much at times. However when the media is silenced the people suffer, when the media is allowed freedom it morphs and changes. Its no longer a challenging crusader of the masses, its not a knight fighting in the shadows, its something real. Something accessible. Its controlled by the same forces that control the price of salt; flailing human attention and the demands of supply. Its not mythical anymore and its flaws and foibles are there for all to see. It’s a fact that I would lead with the story of loss before that of life. It’s a fact that most of us would. The media focused us on a big mirror and the thing about big mirrors they exaggerate your warts and your flaws. You see greed times ten, you see the love for bad news multiplied to grotesque proportions and you want to turn away. Looking into yourself can be so much worse than looking into the abyss because you don't have the comfort that the darkness you see isn't one of your own creation.

So  don’t blame journalists, not all the way, they could of course do better. But when we find that we are blaming a segment of society whose job it is to shine a light on the rest of society  we should remember that  it’s not the torches fault that roaches scatter in its wake.