North Korea threatens to launch a missile. Donald Trump insults someone. Some random celebrity did some random horrible thing. How are these things news? What is news, really and what is it that makes something newsworthy? If information truly equates to power then these are questions we need to ask ourselves and they demand answers. The news media certainly asks them.
Think about how your day usually unfolds: you wake up, send the kids off to school and go to work. Between tasks at the job site or office or wherever you get paid to go eight hours every day, you talk to your coworkers or boss or whoever. Once you get past “Working hard or hardly working?” and “This has been some weather we have been having”, the discussion inevitably turns to what you have seen or heard or read in the news.
Sometimes the discussion is heated and passionate and opinionated. Other times, it just drifts from one topic to the other (government policy to crime rates to the every-popular water-skiing squirrel). Either way, the news of the day dominates much of our personal agendas, social interactions, and emotional energies. But in all fairness, it is often lacking in newsworthiness. It isn’t news at all.
News. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “newly received or noteworthy information.” Tidings, on the other hand, is defined simply as “news” or “information” (it is also a flock of magpies but that is less immediately relevant here). Admittedly, there is a subtle difference between the two terms but it is there, lurking in adjectives and adverbs. Undeniably, much of what we call “news” falls unrelentingly far from satisfying its definition.
The words we use and how we use them frame, not only the structure of our conversation but the tone of it, as well. Read any discussion thread on any news site for just about any story and the contrast is unmistakable. You will never find a comment like, “I find your opinion in conflict with my own values”. It usually comes out more like, “NAZI! YOU SUCK!” Not a lot of grey area there and limited room for open dialogue.
Not surprisingly, the result is a complete polarization of public opinion with little-to-no chance of finding common ground. Imagine that: wide-scale, entirely polarized opinions on topics that, for the most part, have little direct impact on our lives and are, in fact, so repetitive, they can only be described as the exact opposite of noteworthy.
Going back to our first three examples: celebrities doing horrible things is completely inconsequential since we will inevitably forgive them anyway and President Trump insults twelve people before breakfast. As for North Korea, threatening to launch missiles is pretty much their version of golf.
We are not simply a flock of birds (magpies?), mindlessly following whoever is in the lead at the time and riding on the slipstream of information. If we are to promote the interests of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “informed electorate”, we need to share and discuss current events critically. Otherwise, we are without power, at the mercy of the agenda setters.