The problem with real news — and what we can do about it

Rob Wijnberg :

The news is also, almost without exception, negative. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a journalism catchphrase. In other words: good news is no news. People who keep up with the news are thus quick to think the world is getting ever more dangerous — though in fact the opposite is true. What’s more, the news constantly gives us the feeling that people can’t be trusted: they commit fraud, they’re corrupt, they steal from one another, they blow themselves up. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people are good and want to do right by others. But that’s not news, is it?

The news is also obsessed by what’s recent. Almost everything that’s news must be something that has just now taken place. But the most recent thing isn’t by definition the most influential one. Everything in the world has a history. And that history determines in large part why something happens. Because the news usually keeps its eye trained on today, it blinds us to the longer term, both past and future. Informing us about power structures that have grown over time, like the historical roots of racism, or alerting us to gradual societal changes, like the financialization of our economy, is simply not natural to the forms and rhythms of daily news.

And the reason for that, lastly, is that the news revolves mainly around events. News has to have a hook, to use journalism jargon: a reason to report it now instead of later. That sounds logical, but it means that trends rarely make the evening news. For trends aren’t instances; they progress over time. That’s why the nightly news always ends with the weather, but never with the climate. You can’t say: “Today the climate changed”, even though it actually did.

Hook-think is also why much of the news consists of what we might call calendar journalism: recurring, often planned events that serve as an excuse to elevate something to the status of news. Consider press conferences, quarterly earnings, think tank reports, commemorative services, and anniversaries. Or the president’s tweets. That means you can pencil in much of the news in advance, making it something that isn’t “new” at all.