News, knowledge, and being a good person.
He’ll never know it, but my motivation to bite the bullet and write this piece is owing to an old journalism professor. More specifically, some advice he imparted in response to a mild breakdown I once had in his office.
“Sarah, how do you eat an elephant?” Stumped at how this was relevant to the assignment causing said distress, I stared dumbly. “Start at the toes,” he said with a positively jovial wink.
So, here I am. Starting at the toes of the elephant that is news consumption, knowing smarter people have grappled with this far longer and still come up short. Not because I believe for a second I have answers, but because I’ve been thinking about it a lot and maybe we don’t need to know the answer before we put something out there.
Maybe something can end in a deluge of question marks…? Better yet, maybe you have answers? If so, let’s chat.
All that to say, there are no answers here. Continue accordingly.
Knowledge is power. But more important, knowledge is power and power is safety. It’s a privilege and an accomplishment, something accumulated and valued because it makes us feel prepared during times of uncertainty, and certain during times requiring decisiveness.
I love knowledge. Whether it’s because of an inherent curiosity, or because facts and information are good substitutes for self-confidence when one must make decisions, I’ll never know.
It was common for me to spend every morning (and moments I didn’t have to spare throughout the day) scrolling through twitter or online news sites, looking for nothing in particular and always finding it after five or fifteen innocent minutes.
But then, the-thing-that-we-won’t-talk-about happened, and what seemed like an already recklessly fast news cycle got even faster; spitting out a dizzy flood of updates and opinions about the same single topic.
Suddenly I wasn’t just scrolling twitter but watching youtube live streams, reading op-eds and think pieces, returning to the relic that was the 6 pm news and letting it roll on through the evening hours, regardless if anyone was still watching. Just letting the alarming statistics and concerned voices resonate through the house.
I didn’t really question my increased consumption. More was happening, so more information was needed. Yet it wasn’t until week two of what seemed like a tireless tirade of information, and reading this, that I started to question the place news holds, in my life and society as a whole. Not for the first time, but in a way that felt more personal and pressing than before.
Go to journalism school and you learn how to find, report and judge the news. Yet, the rest of the public, who spend large chunks of their life reading the news are never taught how. What constitutes a just news platform or an ethical story? How does one read critically and how much should we read? Questions we’re tasked to figure out alone.
Paper to digital, we all know the game of journalism has totally transfigured in recent decades, and while this change is a popular topic, one can easily forget that with a change in the news comes a change in the way it’s consumed and the effect it has on us.
So, it wasn’t until I considered deleting twitter and localising my news sources that I encountered a surprising conviction; does this make me a bad person? Unintelligent? Lazy? Uneampathetic? As someone who supports democracy and is part of this society, am I required to be constantly informed of global events? Are these hours lost to twitter and news sites the price a ‘good’ citizen pays?
Why’s it so good?
Fundamentally, following the news is an understandable and achievable part in maintaining democracy; the news enables all citizens to politically and meaningfully participate in society in an informed way. However, this sense of duty deserves re-evaluation when it has gone from scanning the morning paper to constantly engaging with the non-sleeping, overwhelming, multi-modal beast that is modern news.
To say it differently, one can feel morally obligated to ‘know’ about matters, and while that obligation is probably healthy, it is only so in moderation, something the likes of twitter or online news don’t consider.
In discussing these issues, two questions become unavoidable; what is ‘news’ (compared to the soft-topic content with dramatic headlines) and ‘how much’ is ‘enough’ to warrant being informed.
What is ‘actual’ news?
The first question is pretty contentious, because, while living in an ideal world would be swell, media companies of the real world don’t (and in most cases can’t) have our best interests at heart, at least, not exclusively. With a bill that Government can’t pay and the public don’t want to cover, advertising stepped in to foot the bill, with accompanying strings attached. Strings called ‘speed’ and ‘sensationalism’. Clicks equal audiences equal advertising reach, and what attains clicks is certainly interesting but not always news-worthy. Political gossip and sexual scandals, the negative and spectacular, the public and the private blown up to epic proportions.
In addition, just because news is globally accessible, doesn’t make it universally essential. Stories that an African woman or American man really must read aren’t necessarily of any importance to a twenty-something Kiwi girl.
This isn’t to say honest and relevant news doesn’t exist. One can be sure it does. But this still doesn’t answer the question, that even if we can find such a thing, should we continue to consume it in amounts we’ve become accustomed to, and is it irresponsible (or even acceptable) to stop?
Does reading the news make me ‘good’?
Due to the aforementioned fundamental service news plays in informing a democracy, it makes sense that reading the news comes with an uncharacteristically binary moral code; those who do are good, intelligent and upstanding and those who don’t are bad. A moral prescription that seems to exist irrespective of what one does with that knowledge. While two people may do nothing about an overseas famine, foreign political feud or global crisis, those who know all the details are superior.
Yet if it was a zero-sum game where more news = more ethical action, we’d be the most principled, engaged and active generation to date. And I just don’t believe that is true. I don’t become more compassionate the more information I gain. I become more ethical when I truly engage with the humanity in a story. And one only has a finite amount of emotional capacity with which to do that.
Finite, not simply in terms of ‘time’ but also capacity. As Meira Levinson, the co-director of Harvard’s Centre for Ethics puts it, “everybody has a finite amount of cognitive and emotional capacity,” going as far as to say spending that capacity on trivial news rather than topics such as climate change ‘unethical’.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island College professor Amy Berg said while one should be aware of global suffering and trials, it’s important to consider our sphere of actionable influence. “Important moral goals are most likely to be accomplished locally,” she said, something that is difficult when we spend the majority of our time reading about cities thousands of miles away while ignorant of the events in our own suburbs.
Be honest, why are you really reading?
If the purpose of reading the news is to become an informed citizen who can meaningfully participate in democracy, aren’t we far better off learning of issues we can actually engage in? Issues our vote can solve? Figures we can challenge through marches or letters or protests? Groups we can boycott or support and individuals we can rally around?
But, if we’re reading the news for entertainment, for drama on a global scale, then perhaps we’d do well to drop the sense of superiority, and admit it’s equally acceptable to read a novel, listen to a fiction podcast or learn an instrument. Again, not saying using the news for entertainment is in any way bad, but I suppose calling for an acknowledgement that just because it’s true and it’s terrible, it doesn’t make it ‘better’. It’s still a topic on which one has very little agency, but a lot of fulfilment — even if that often comes at the detriment to people’s mental health.
At the time of writing, the landscape of news and its importance is one that must be treaded oh-so lightly. Jobs, roles, even entire companies in media are being axed and talented journalists are left unemployed. One need only dabble in the industry to know how underpaid and overworked an environment it was before the pandemic. It’s not the individuals I have beef with.
Just a struggle against how informed is too informed. Because, while one would be foolish to champion total ignorance, I think we need to question the pedestal that news continues to hold in media consumption.
As I said, no tidy end, and certainly no answers. Just a whole lot of questions. Got some of your own? Or answers? Leave a comment if you’re feeling bold, or message me. Nothing better than a good discussion.