The News literally means new things. What it has come to mean it a factual report delivered by a journalist from a trusted source. The News is a list of facts collected by an individual reduced to a sound bite or short article and presented for mass consumption. I have been reading The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton. De Botton attempts to deconstruct the mass media world of the news and explain why consumers react to it with such apathy.
If you go to the home page of the CBC the top headlines for today (August 15, 2016) are a live feed from the Olympic games, a story about a mother being charged after dead children were found under a neighbour’s porch and a billionaire family’s dream becomes a nightmare. The homepage is divided into CBC News and CBC Sports as well as must watch videos. So you are presented with a lot of information in different formats and expected to choose what interests you. In many ways, this is a good thing. You get the news you want and avoid what you don’t want. For example, you only hear about sports if you’re interested.
Yet are not some stories so important that everyone should know about them. And no I’m not talking about what Kim Kardashian wore to the mall yesterday. Do we not have a civic responsibility to know what is going on in our country and abroad? Yet how can we find out what the government is doing and how their policies will affect our lives if the stories about their actions bore us to tears.
De Botton suggests that the way news is delivered needs to change. The primacy of a recitation of the facts and the focus on specific events is the wrong way to go about it. We need context to provide understanding. For new about our own government context could take the form of the reason for a policy change and the possible effects of that change. For example, Trudeau recently announced that the federal government would provide free tuition for all undergraduate students starting next year. Some context for this announcement might explain how OSAP intends to fund this change, emphasize that the change only affects undergrads, explain how funding will change and explain why free tuition is being offered. One thing news article often fail to answer is the why question. Sometimes it is because there is no answer but when there is an answer it should be included to help with understanding.
In the case of foreign affairs, even more, context is needed. De Botton points out that foreign affairs journalist tend to avoid praising the exotic out of a fear of sounding racist. Yet different cultures are exotic and explaining those differences to your audience helps them engage with the stories. Not knowing what the social norms of a society are causes people to dismiss stories from that part of the world because they do not understand them. The news offers us only a piecemeal view of a culture and it is a frustrating partial picture that turns off many more than it engages. Showing the whole picture is needed to fully capture audience attention.
The bottom line is that the only way for the news to recapture their audience is for them to change their approach. Sociology and Travel Writing is more interesting than just the facts.