What to do with the news


We live in a world in which the news is far more pervasive than the events it reports. An event happens in one place and is almost instantly repeated and echoed in millions more. And while the event might be shocking, tragic, horrifying in its place, a wider and sometimes greater toll is exacted by its reportage, by the slow-motion replays, by the breathless punditry, and by the never-ceasing cycle that is already looking for the next outrage before any careful analysis or compassionate response can be made in relation to the current “breaking story.”

And if we have any moment to doubt, we will be soon reassured that this is important: “The news you need to know.” Whether it’s hourly news bulletins with more frequent headline updates in between, the headlines crawling across the bottom of the screen, the race of news services to be the first with the story, or the regular TV station promos that urge their news programming—or news channel—as vital to any functional adult life, it’s the people who sell us the news—and the ads in between or across the top—that invest the most in urging the imperative of the news. But the place of the news in workplace, dinner-party, or social-media conversations also remind us of the assumed significance of the headlines of the day.

A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognise the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us.

In The News: A User’s Manual, philosopher Alain de Botton endorses Hegel’s suggestion that the dominance of news has replaced religion “as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority. In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths.” He points to morning and evening news bulletins mimicking the devotional rituals of previous generations but, more significantly, identifies the deference we give to “the news” as a source of meaning and even morality for our lives: “Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.”

As misguided as this might be, all this might have been manageable when it was the newspaper in the morning, occasional radio bulletins during the day, and evening TV news. But now it never stops and the news is on our phones, computers, and other devices. Always with us, always on, always breaking.

Adding to the complexity is the inherent nature of news as a selection of the absurd. Important, valuable, beautiful, and good things happen around us every day. But so many of these will never be “news.” Instead, news celebrates the oddity, the first, the largest, the most shocking; and mixes the most tragic with the trivialities of celebrity, sports results, and tomorrow’s weather, which most days is unremarkable. It’s a bewildering cocktail, selected more for its capacity to catch and hold our attention—ironically, by never holding our attention, quickly shifting from one story or idea to the next—than an attempt to survey what is important for our lives and communities.

While many journalists seek to tell significant and worthwhile stories for our communities, nations, and the wider world, reasonable voices are often swamped by voices that pander to our fears, insecurities, and prejudices. Some commentators make a good living doing just that. But even the voices and stories that try to bring out our best are so easily lost in the mere multiplicity of information that seeks our attention.

De Botton contrasts news with religion in this significant sense: “Exactly like the news, religions want to tell us important things every day,” he writes. “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.” 

Here are the key questions about what our over-exposure to the news does to us: Does the news—even if only by the magnitude of half-told stories—overwhelm us into voyeuristic numbness? Does it pummel our hearts, making us more insular, anxious, and entrenched? Or does it prompt us to compassionate response? If news has become our assumed social religion, we must be aware of the values it builds into our lives, and how our responses are lived in our actions.

Ignoring the world around us is not an option. Because of the news, we understand the inter-connectedness of each of our lives in important ways; and there is value in being informed and educated. But we must also recognise the ways in which the news rivals our larger values and colonises our priorities. And that can be hard to do when we are incessantly called to attention by the louder voices of the media around us.

It isn’t heresy to conclude that some days we can simply turn it off. The world of news will continue without us. We need not feel guilty about not having every detail of each unfolding tragedy, gruesome atrocity, alarming report, or political posture. We can breathe deeply of the world in more positive ways. As de Botton concludes: “A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognise the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us.” 

Two of Jesus’ often-overlooked commands were “Don’t be afraid” (see Luke 12:32) and “Do not worry” (see Matt. 6:25–34); and these are difficult to obey if we fill our lives only with the news. While the news might be religion-like, living well and living faithfully are rarely found in the headlines.

Alain de Botton, The news: A user’s manual, Vintage Books, 2014, p. 11.

Ibid, p. 31.

Ibid, p. 255.

Originally published at www.adventistworld.org.

Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia, and a Manifest co-convenor.