Some make a hobby of following the lives of celebrity train wrecks stumbling about in the shadows of their fame — ugly, drugged up and totally batshit insane.
As for me, I like watching the news industry.
Like any salacious tabloid piece, the fall of journalism has been dramatic and oh so humiliating. Gone are the days when the media spoke with authority. These days the insult of "fake news” is hurled at the journalistic industry, who in turn hurls it back at its detractors — like the most competitive game of pass-the-parcel. "YOU'RE fake news!" "No, YOU'RE FAKE NEWS!!" And so the world goes on, and up in flames.
Now who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? The two most commonly blamed targets are fools and technology.
By fools, I am referring to that kind of person that I’m sure we have all encountered in our lives. That person who shares sensational news headlines with their entire social circle— without checking for their veracity. Or even worse, they hold on tight to their unsubstantiated views, and see any who would challenge their viewpoints as their oppressors.
Sure, a little ignorance can be forgiven. But ignorance on a large enough scale can reshape the fates of communities and societies. Despite all credible media sources advising against it, Trump was still elected and Britain still voted to leave the European Union. It is too easy to fall into hysterical despair. What is the point of producing quality journalism, when it would only fall upon deaf ears, pearls cast before swine?
Such a theory of how we ended up in a post-truth world feels almost right. It threads together an explanation for two trends that we all witness today. First, the rise of populism as a force, where the common, unpolished people harness their power and their privilege to act upon their most irrational instincts, to vote in polarising politicians. Secondly, the rapid rate at which technology is advancing, where it is fundamentally changing every facet of our lives even before we can grasp its ramifications.
Yet the counter-argument to this is equally obvious and familiar to everyone. Technology is not bad – it is the way that people use technology that determines whether it is ill or good. Likewise, people are not doomed to act stupidly or maliciously. There is a better part to human nature, where we have the power to shape our own behaviour, as well as the behaviour of others for the greater good.
In the future, people will continue to use technology to find out more about the world and the communities they live in. But this need not be a bad thing.
What the journalism industry and what societies all over the world need to do is to focus on this nexus between people, information, and technology. Instead of online communities guiding people to form echo-chambers, or social media abetting our addiction to sensationalism, or big data being used to exploit individuals, technology should be purposefully harnessed to empower individuals to become more thoughtful and open-minded.
For instance, the model of clickbait journalism — that leverages upon technology to get sensational headlines to them can be challenged. Instead, another theory can be devised — that our minds are evolutionarily wired to seek for patterns and gravitate towards order and truth about the world. That we have a capacity for curiosity and wonder. And that we have even less epistemological reasons such as wanting to look smart in front of our family and friends. These factors suggest a viable, alternative vision of a news industry that could hook people based on better truths about our desires.
Instead of deluging consumers with a barrage of headlines, perhaps news companies could take a more measured and methodological approach to how they present news to their readers, and bring that sense of order that humans innately crave.
Often, reading the news just makes one feel overwhelmed. For instance, a recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that, for many Americans reading the news merely made them feel more stressed and anxious. This is arguably because the news gives us a warped perception of the world. It tends to cover what is recent and sensational — instead of the ordinary, the historical and the positive.
This is why we are often ignorant of the most basic facts about the world we live in today: that most terrorists are not Muslim, that solar energy has become cheaper than coal, that the financial crisis did not start in 2008, and that overall the world is in fact becoming a less violent place. There is an argument to be made that the nihilism that the news can unintentionally breed is what drives people to vote for populists who promise change. That they seek out the simple narratives of populists who scapegoat vulnerable groups because the news seems like a series of shocks, rather than a source of understanding trends.
Meanwhile, even as news companies are still trying to change, there is much that consumers of the news can do. By putting thought into how information comes to them, how they interpret such information, and how they share such information with others, news consumers can figure out a method that works for them in learning and sharing what they know about the world. And more than that, they can also support news companies that undertake bold experiments to reform our relationship with news in society.
This is part one of an article series about how news and journalism can be reformed and revitalised. Part two of this article will explore two companies that are taking interesting strategies to “unbreak” the news.