IN HIS 2014 book, News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton tackles the news in all its forms. News has become almost a religion, an obligation to keep up with what’s going on around us. It’s the first thing we check when we wake up and take our coffee.
Journalists hold facts and accuracy to be sacred, with “bias” being the devil’s handmaiden. Still, the very selection of what set of facts to cover and how to put these in context clearly call for subjective judgment.
De Botton breaks down the news by type of coverage. Foreign news, from his perspective as British, though Swiss-born, tackle other countries and their crises. It raises the question of how we can even be interested in what happens elsewhere. The BBC, De Botton reports, had a bureau consisting of six journalists to cover Uganda. He wonders why. Okay, a British explorer named a famous lake in Uganda after Queen Victoria. So what if the head of the country had stolen aid money meant for to the needy? Should it bother the Brits? (That one has a familiar ring.)
De Botton has interesting takes on celebrity journalism — the rich and famous, and how they live. A 30-year-old “technopreneur” selling his pay platform for $300 million at age 30? Does this not stoke envy in the readers? As for the section on disasters, crime, and accidents of the bloodiest kind — the evoked emotion is relief. (I’m glad it wasn’t me the police killed in a case of mistaken identity.)
Coverage of “consumption” news is a relatively modern trend. De Botton devotes a whole section on journalistic reviews for the consumption of goods. These include travel, art, fashion, technology (which phone to buy), and food. Restaurant and hotel guides even assign stars bestowed by anonymous evaluators, sponsored by a tire company. (Yes, my dear, Michelin makes tires.)
2014 when De Bottons’ book came out seems like ages ago. (He has no section on fake news.) So, how do we now get our news in these parts and in these times?
The “personalization” of the news through an app is already mentioned by De Botton at the end of his book. This trend has accelerated. Our personal selection shows preference, and, yes, bias. We read news that confirm our own views, and support what we already believe in. This is what behavioral economists call “confirmation bias.” So, if we don’t believe in vaccination as an effective deterrent for getting the virus, but just a marketing offensive (in all the meanings of the word) of big pharma, we look for items to confirm our bias, like vaccinated passengers in a cruise testing positive anyway.
So, how do we get our news? Aside from the curated news alerts, we rely on Viber groups to feed us the latest posts and opinions. Aren’t there chat fights within the group when the pessimist spreads his fake and dated news to the consternation of the realists? (Please slug it out off-line.)
The proliferation of fake news is a recent phenomenon. It adheres to the belief propounded by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda — “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” The fake news is now even amplified by surveys to increase its credibility. Reposting and forwarding have made fake news the new chain letter.
At bottom, the question to ask is this — Who determines what facts constitute news with some relevance to the reader?
With the personalization of the news we pay attention to (or ignore), the phenomenon of selective perception now applies to current events. Unfortunately, indifference over, say, what’s happening in Burma, or, closer to home, the invasion of fishing grounds and oil deposits in the West Philippine Sea, can lead to events taking their course without any opposition.
Even “breaking news” can invite a shrug of the shoulders. As with the person called in the middle of the night by relatives or friends watching a fire breaking out in his vicinity on the news, the simple and comforting answer is plain — no, we’re fine. That’s the house across the road from us.
We can all go back to sleep… unless the firemen didn’t do their job.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda