I remember the day Gaddafi was killed. I saw the news on TV: footage of his body being carried through the streets of Sirte, while the newsreader described how he’d been killed. Next, the same footage and the same description were shown again. And then again. And again. In my naivety I waited for the analysis to begin, the background information and the likely ramifications of Gaddafi’s death. Nothing. Instead, just the same sequence on a loop.
Footage of a dead body shown over and over again, in the middle of the day. A crowing, triumphalist description of how he’d been killed. That’s all we got. I remember thinking, is this most cogent analysis we can manage? And is this the most civilised tone we can muster at the death of someone we (rightly) claim moral superiority to?
The fact that I was so surprised shows I haven’t watched much TV for a long time, but also how much things have changed in the last few years. I’ve always thought it’s good to be informed about the wider world, so I was surprised when I started to read things that suggested the opposite. It’s down to the technology, of course: back in the day we had to make an effort to find whatever information we could, but now we’re constantly deluged with it. The problem’s not obtaining information any more, it’s sorting it all.
Now, the first step in sorting information is taken not by us but by the people who make TV programmes, write newspaper articles and so on. For a long time now, their choice of what information to present has been criticised: this article was written by Martyn Lewis more than 20 years ago. Much more recently, I keep reading that news agendas are overly pessimistic: we hear terrible things about the Middle East, plane crashes, cancer, financial meltdown, Russia, terrorism, obesity, unemployment, the atomisation of society and who knows what else when actually lives are longer, food and material things more plentiful and discrimination less widespread than ever. If you find that hard to believe, compare your life to your grandparents’ at your age, or read a novel set before World War II. Conditions and attitudes we now find unimaginable – or jaw-droppingly unacceptable when they do occur – weren’t just more common then, they were the norm. News providers are often criticised for publishing only bad news and so making us think the modern world is much worse than it is.
News providers are only going where the money is, though. Why do they consider bad news newsworthy? Well, for one thing we have an innate psychological bias towards bad news. In evolutionary terms this makes perfect sense: people who paid more attention to problems would be more likely to deal with them successfully and survive. In the modern world, it explains why a news provider would be keen to publish bad news to attract a bigger audience. Also, good news tends to involve gradual change rather than a sudden event. If a company is providing microcredit or an initiative is creating jobs, this is an ongoing process and it’s not clear why you would cover it in today’s news bulletin rather than tomorrow’s, or last week’s. In contrast, sudden, unexpected events are usually bad – earthquakes, plane crashes – and obviously you break that news as soon as you get it.
Of course, as with the Gaddafi story, it’s not just what gets covered but how it’s covered. I talked in my last post about how daft I find a lot of “news” reporting. So I’m very interested in something called slow journalism and a magazine called Delayed Gratification, described in this video (scroll down). The speaker gives some great examples of just why we should be so wary of a lot of what’s out there these days, from earthquake warnings to the Amanda Knox trial.
Have any of you read Delayed Gratification already? I find the idea really impressive, and I hope the magazine lives up to its ambitions (plus it has a great name). It must surely be much better than the constant white noise of minutiae we get bombarded with.
April’s cause of the month is the Samaritans.