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The Difficulties of Consuming News

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Sherwin McGehee via Getty Images
Sherwin McGehee via Getty Images

We're one of the first generations to have to deal with the torrent of information about things very far removed from our own lives. For most of history, it was extremely difficult to come by information about what was happening anywhere else. And you probably didn't mind. What difference would it make, if you were a crofter in the Hebrides, to learn that a power struggle was brewing in the Ottoman Empire?

Much of what we now take for granted as news has its origins in the information needed by people making major decisions or at the center of national affairs. We still hear the echoes in the way news is reported; timing is assumed to be critical, as it really would be if we were active agents. If you don't have the latest update, you might make a terrible blunder or miss a wonderful opportunity.

Ease of communication and a generous democratic impulse mean that information originally designed for decision makers now gets routinely sent via the media to very large numbers of people. It is as if a dossier -- with the latest news from Kiev -- which might properly arrive on the desk of a minister has accidentally been delivered to the wrong address and ends up on the breakfast table of a librarian in Colchester or an electrician in Colchester. But the librarian or electrician might quite reasonably turn around and politely point out that they can't do anything with this knowledge and that, surely, the files have come to them by mistake. They don't, but only because habit has closed our eyes to the underlying strangeness of the phenomenon.

The modern idea of news is pleasantly flattering. Yet it's really quite strange. We keep getting information that we don't really know what to do with. No wonder we're sometimes a bit bored. It's not our fault.

News organizations are coy about admitting that what they present us with each day are minuscule extracts of narratives whose true shape and logic can generally only emerge from a perspective of months or even years -- and that it would hence often be wiser to hear the story in chapters rather than snatched sentences. They are institutionally committed to implying that it is inevitably better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line.

We need news organizations to help our curiosity by signaling how their stories fit into the larger themes on which a sincere capacity for interest depends. To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to 'put' it, which means some way of connecting it to an issue we already know how to care about. A section of the human brain might be pictured as a library in which information is shelved under certain fundamental categories. Most of what we hear about day to day easily signals where in the stacks it should go and gets immediately and unconsciously filed: news of an affair is put on the heavily burdened shelf dedicated to 'How Relationships Work,' a story of the sudden sacking of a CEO slots into our evolving understanding of 'Work & Status.'

But the stranger or the smaller stories become, the harder the shelving process grows. What we colloquially call 'feeling bored' is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place. We might, for example, struggle to know what to do with information that a group of Chinese officials was paying a visit to Afghanistan to discuss border security in the province of Badakhshan, or that a left wing think tank was agitating to reduce levels of tax in the pharmaceutical industry. We might need help in transporting such orphaned pieces of information to the stacks that would most appropriately reveal their logic.

It is for news organizations to take on some of this librarian's work. It is for them to give us a sense of the larger headings under which minor incidents belong. An item on a case of petty vandalism one Saturday night in a provincial town ('Bus Shelter Graffitied by Young Vandals in Bedford') might come to life if it was viewed as a minuscule moment within a lengthier drama titled: 'The Difficulties faced by Liberal Secular Societies Trying to Instill Moral Behavior Without the Help of Religion'. Likewise, an indigestible item about yet another case of government corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ('Kickback Accusations in DRC') could be enhanced by a heading that hinted at its grander underlying subject: 'The Clash Between the Western Understanding of the State and the African Notion of the Clan.'

Unfortunately for our levels of engagement, there is a prejudice at large within many news organizations that the most prestigious aspect of journalism is the dispassionate and neutral presentation of 'facts'. CNN's slogan, for instance, is "Bringing you the facts"; NRC Handelsblad of the Netherlands touts its ability to "deliver fact, not opinion"; the BBC vaunts itself as "the world's most reliable source of facts."

The problem with facts is that there is nowadays no shortage of reliable examples. The issue is not that we need more of them, but that we don't know what to do with the ones we have. Every news day unleashes another flood: we learn that Standard & Poor's is reviewing the nation's credit rating, that there has been an extension to the government spending bill, that voting boundaries have been submitted to a committee and that plans for a natural gas pipeline have begun to be drawn up. But what do these things actually mean? How are they related to the central questions of political life? What can they help us to understand?

The opposite of facts is bias. In serious journalistic quarters, bias has a very bad name. It is synonymous with malevolent agendas, lies and authoritarian attempts to deny audiences the freedom to make up their own minds.

Yet we should perhaps be more generous towards bias. In its pure form, a bias simply indicates a method of evaluating events that is guided by a coherent underlying thesis about human functioning and flourishing. It is a pair of lenses that slides over reality and aims to bring it more clearly into focus. Bias strives to explain what events mean and introduces a scale of values by which to judge ideas and events. It seems excessive to try to escape from bias per se; the task is rather to find ways to alight on its more reliable and fruitful examples.

Although certain grating right and left-wing varieties dominate our understanding of the term bias, there are ultimately as many biases as there are visions of life. There are countless worthy lenses to slide between ourselves and the world. We might, for example, interpret the news according to the distinctive biased perspectives of Walt Whitman or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or the Buddha. One could imagine a news outlet with a psychoanalytic bias, focusing on issues of guilt and envy on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, alive to the idea of projection in political debates and highly skeptical that 'depression' had set in across the country because the economy had contracted by 0.1 percent or indeed that happiness was inevitable because it was set to expand by 1.3 percent.

What should be laudable in a news organization is not a simple capacity to collect facts, but a skill -- honed by intelligent bias -- at teasing out their relevance.

Central to modern politics is the majestic and beautiful idea that every citizen is -- in a small but highly significant way -- the ruler of his or her own nation. The news has a central role to play in the fulfillment of this promise, for it is the conduit through which we meet our leaders, judge their fitness to direct the state and evolve our positions on the most urgent economic and social challenges of the day. Far from being incidental features of democracies, news organizations are their guarantors.

And yet the news as it exists is woefully short on the work of coordination, distillation and curation. We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt we cared so passionately about only hours ago. At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity, we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression. Faced with the scale of the problems the news highlights, individual initiative can start to seem counterintuitive and pathetic. Rather than an impression of political possibility, an encounter with the news may usher in an impression of our nothingness in an unimprovable and fundamentally chaotic universe.

It would be easy to suppose that the real enemy of democratic politics must be the active censorship of news -- and therefore that the freedom to say or publish anything would be the natural ally of 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 most of the audience is unable to hold on to 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 have 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. It is too easy to claim that serious things must, and can almost afford to, be a bit boring. The challenge is to transcend the current dichotomy between those outlets that offer thoughtful but impotent instruction on the one hand and those that provide sensationalism stripped of responsibility on the other.