For all the talk of education, modern societies neglect to examine by far the most influential means by which our populations are educated. The news is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality. Modern societies are still at the dawn of understanding what kind of news we need in order to flourish.
Alain de Botton
from The News; A User’s Manual
The News and Democratic Politics
We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged. Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common emotions provoked.
The habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run through our societies, whether an election, a budget negotiation, a foreign policy initiative, or a change in a state benefit system. No wonder we get bored.
It would be easy to suppose the real enemy of democratic politics must be the active censorship of the news, – and therefore that the freedom to say and publish anything would be the natural ally to civilization.
But the modern world is teaching us that there are dynamics far more insidious and cynical still than censorship in draining people of political will; these involve confusing, boring, and distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganized, fractured, and intermittent way that a majority of the audience is unable to hold onto the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.
A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news; he or she would only have to see to it that news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing. Without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colorful antics of murderers and film stars. This would be quite enough to undermine most people’s capacity to grasp political reality, – as well as any resolve they might otherwise summoned to alter it. The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on news.
A popular perception that political news is boring is no minor issue; for when news fails to harness the curiosity and attention of a mass audience through its presentational techniques, a society becomes dangerously unable to grapple with its own dilemmas and therefore to marshal the popular will to change and improve itself.
But the answer isn’t just to intimidate people into consuming more ‘serious’ news; it is to push so-called serious outlets into learning to present important information in ways that can properly engage audiences. In the ideal news organization of the future, the ambitious tasks of contextualization and popularization would be taken so seriously that stories about welfare payments would be (almost) as exciting as those about incestuous antipodean cannibals.
Community Media Centre
Centre for Community Journalism
Centre for Democracy
Democracy in Canada