Friday, July 04, 2014

Context is good in journalism, and so is repetition

Here's another insight from the de Botton book I mentioned in my last post, drawing on a dubious Hegelian argument that mass information was replacing religion in societal influence:
Hegel's argument that the news now occupies the same prestigious position in society as religion once did misses out an important difference between the two fields of knowledge: religions have traditionally been particularly sensitive to how bad we are at focusing on anything. Exactly like the news, religions want to tell us important things every day. But unlike the news, they know that if they tell us too much, in one go, and only once, then we will remember -- and do -- nothing
They therefore take care to serve up only a little of their fare each day, taking us patiently through a few issues and then returning to them again and again. Repetition and rehearsal are key to the pedagogical methods of the major faiths. (p. 31)
The ideas of repetition and rehearsal, of course, are anathema to journalistic tradition, which assumes that once a fact has been reported it is universally known, and that audiences everywhere will use today's facts as a contextual foundation for the facts that come tomorrow.

That's why, even in a book highly sympathetic to my views called "Informing the News," Thomas E. Patterson accepts that the following "depiction of what a news story might look like if written through the long-range lens of political science" would take journalism in the wrong direction:
A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday -- an arbitrary event that had no effect on the trajectory of American politics. Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for public office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the fundamentals of jobs numbers and the GDP. (p. 82-83)
Patterson writes that "News reports of this ilk" -- written tongue-in-cheek by journalist Christopher Beam -- "would soon send people scurrying to find better ways to spend their time." He goes on, but I'd like to stop him there for a second, because:
  • First, news reports written about the president and politics already send people scurrying for better ways to spend their time. That's the point of Patterson's book, my book, and dozens of other lamentations about the lack of attention to public affairs news in America.
  • Second, I think fewer people would scurry away from news reporting that really told it like it is -- not too far from what Beam does as a joke above -- than reporting that embraces and amplifies the artifice of politics and treats everyone outside politics like a bunch of dummies.
  • And third, if journalists reported and wrote from this perspective, they'd write fewer stupid inconsequential kinds of stories that led to these kinds of observations and could begin to focus on the difficult challenges our leaders face and their performance on the issues by which Americans will ultimately judge them.
That would be a significant improvement over what we have now.

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