time to turn off the news


Six O’clock News’ (from Larry Norman’s early 70s album ‘Only Visiting this Planet’) had an impact on my hungry teenage mind and so for many years I’ve wondered about the place of the news.

The questions started accumulating in my head. Given the complexity and random nature of life, why does the news of the day always take ½ hour?  Of course it’s a programming thing, but that’s the point. Why does it always, everyday, take ½ hour to tell us what is important? Why do we hear about some countries and not others? Why is what happens to celebrities more newsworthy than more significant things that happen to ordinary folk? And who decides this stuff anyway?

In the mid 90s I helped arrange arranged a session for uni students with esteemed political journalist Michelle Grattan in Canberra. She lamented the shift that had began to define the news, where images determined what made the bulletin. So the TV news lies to us that it’s important if the images are good. These days Twitter lies to us that it’s important because it’s fresh. What does make something news worthy? And what value does my knowledge of it add anyway? How am I impoverished if I switch off?

The mid 90s also bought us the brilliant satire Frontline. Perhaps nothing else has educated us as effectively on the nature of ‘so-called’ news and current affairs. Even the long running ABC’s Media Watch is more concerned with practice within the genre, rather than critically examining the genre itself.

Alain De Botton is at his usual provocative ways in his latest book on, you guessed it, the News. He talks about how watching the news has become a modern religious ritual, where our view of the world and what is important is shaped on a drip feed over years. In the same way that religious services are based on the notion that ‘you need to hear this stuff regularly and relentlessly for it to change the way you think and live’, so does the news.

De Botton takes issue with the fact that the news format necessarily gives us snippets of ‘random’ information without giving us the sweep of the narrative that provides context and helps us discern meaning. Instead we are left with what, especially with commercial news, is really infotainment with significant influence from commercial interests.

The current issue of The Monthly contains a great piece on the media, in particular the ABC by Don Watson. Watson explores possibilities associated with the publicly funded broadcaster being shaped by presenters with unashamed biases. The current federal (Australian) Government is certainly overtly unhappy with the current approach. I share Watson’s deep concern for the alternative.

So what do we do? Is the contemporary addiction to be plugged into current news all bad? Is there anything wrong with our tendency to reach for our smartphones for an update first thing after we wake up? Surely the 6 or 7 o’clock TV news ritual can’t be that bad?

De Botton also reminds us that the news has an escapist dimension. The news suggests to us that in the scheme of things our daily domestic trials are very ordinary. Knowing that there are human criminal monsters out there, that severe weather events are destroying whole communities or that the horror of war is relentlessly real for thousands of people is perversely comforting.

So what are we to do? Maria and I still sit regularly sit down and watch the ‘recorded’ news as a daily ritual. But we increasingly suffer it. When I’m in Melbourne working, I have the radio on over muesli. But for me, my intentional weekly news digest is The Economist newspaper. Somehow a weekly cycle in printed form is a natural guard against the ‘now-ism’ and ‘image-ism’ of the daily cycle.

I suppose, as with all customs and habits that shape our worldview, total abstinence is rarely a healthy or sustainable response. Rather it is reflective awareness of its place in our lives. I reckon its time to challenge the notion of news and our addiction to it.