Thursday, July 03, 2014

The News as Pedagogy

Just started reading a new book I came across at the library, "The News: A User's Manual," by Alain de Botton. He makes a point that I think is central to the way we should view journalism: "Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher."

Thinking of journalism this way, as the predominant tool of social pedagogy for adults, throws nearly all of our traditional news values into disarray. If we think of journalism as teaching, a lot of the stuff that factors into news judgment -- prominence, urgency, conflict, unusualness -- becomes subordinate to a couple of key values: significance and impact. The realization has crept upon me that news' obsession with what is out of the ordinary or unique does a disservice to individuals and societies by steering attention away from what is endemic and persistent, which are the things we really need to pay attention to.

There's a lot of stuff I should link to later about things like cultivation theory, which suggests that regular reporting on violent crime leads people to think there's more violent crime than there really is, or exemplification theory, which suggests that zeroing in on vivid but unrepresentative examples skew the way we understand underlying statistical information. In essence, by focusing on superlatives and anomalies, journalism creates a wholly unrealistic picture of what the world is really like.

If news is how post-school individuals learn about the world, teaching in this way is irresponsible and destructive. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, what journalism really needs to be doing is describing the normal, the everyday and the average in compelling ways -- and I do mean compelling. It strikes me that one of the most important things journalism should do is inspire curiosity in the general public about how things work, why things are, and how things change. This, in part, is what Ezra Klein seems to be doing with Vox Media. I think that's the right direction.

Also, not quite on topic, is this passage from de Botton about the episodic nature of news (which he illustrates by quoting a snippet from the middle of "Anna Karenina" as though it were the top of a news story) that echoes many points in my own book:

... [T]he habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run through our societies, whether an election, a budget negotiation, a foreign policy initiative or a change to the state benefit system. No wonder we get bored.
 If we think of journalism as pedagogy, we're much less likely to forget the context.

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