12 Jun Why do news organizations focus so much on the darkness? (ALAIN DE BOTTON)
Why do news organizations focus so much on the darkness? Why so much grimness and so little hope? Perhaps they think that their audiences are by nature a little too innocent, sheltered and pleased with themselves and therefore very much in need of being taught some of the negative aspects of reality – in order to recalibrate their expectations of others and take safety measures where possible. The presumption is that without the dark realism of the news, the nation might lapse back into its dangerous tendency to gloss over its problems and feel foolishly content with itself.
Putting aside the logic of this thesis for a moment, it at least offers up a suggestion of how news organizations should go about curating their content. Faced with an infinity of potential stories, they should pick ones that answer to what they think of as the prevailing national need. That which the nation most needs to hear at any given point – in order to compensate for its weaknesses – should determine the selection process behind the line-up of news items.
This logic isn’t alien to news organizations of today. What is problematic is their judgement about what the national need actually is. Most countries, far from taking too rosy a view of their condition, far from trusting too much and feeling stupidly hopeful, do precisely the opposite. They are at risk for reasons other than the ones currently implicitly diagnosed by the media. They scupper their chances through excessive fear, anxiety and gloom. They are all too familiar with their litanies of problems, and yet they seem to feel debilitatingly small, unambitious and weak in the face of them. They can’t see a way past decline, broken relationships, out-of-control teenagers, status anxiety, physical vulnerability and economic ruin.
There is a task for the news here: not only to remind us daily of society’s worst failings, but also – sometimes – to train and direct its capacities for pride, resilience and hope. National decline can be precipitated not only or principally by sentimental optimism, but also by a version of media-induced clinical depression.
Architecture can offer a useful example of how the occasional showcasing of what is positive has legitimate uses. The members of the team charged with designing the velodrome for the 2012 London Olympics (less than a mile from North Woolwich) were well aware of Britain’s many challenges – its class divisions and economic inequalities, its educational failures and its housing shortages, its high rates of family breakdown and its degraded manners and morals – but they decided, on this occasion, not to dwell on them.
Instead they chose to create a structure that would stand as an eloquent expression of politeness, modernity, class harmony and reconciliation with nature, in the hope that these qualities might become more present in the country at large through their articulation in a cycling venue clad in glass, steel and western red cedar. The building was an essay in flattery. It hinted that desirable qualities were already widely possessed by a country in which they were in fact only nascent or intermittent.
We are used to thinking of flattery as sentimental and dangerous, an abandonment of reality, but this is to underestimate how reality can be moulded. The child who is praised for her first modest attempts at kindness (when sharing a toy with a neighbour’s offspring), and called lovely as a result, is being guided to develop beyond what she actually happens to be right now. The thought is that she will grow into the person she has flatteringly been described as already being.
As with architecture, so with news. Alongside its usual focus on catastrophe and evil, the news should perform the critical function of sometimes distilling and concentrating a little of the hope a nation requires to chart a course through its difficulties. While helping society by uncovering its misdeeds and being honest about its pains, the news should not neglect the equally important task of constructing an imaginary community that seems sufficiently good, forgiving and sane that one might want to contribute to it.
The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton