One issue which is often discussed is sensationalism. By having racier, more exciting stories than their rivals, a newspaper or TV channel hopes to attract a bigger audience. And of course it is audience size, rather than accuracy or quality of output, which measures success. So dramatic stories are privileged over dull-but-worthy ones, and everything must be dressed up to seem as spicy as possible.
I exaggerate, perhaps, but the process is well known and much analysed. But there is another, deeper phenomenon, at play: Harrabin’s law. It doesn’t depend on the cynicism of the press, but begins with the observation that news, definitionally, has to be new. So commonplace or ongoing situations are unlikely to be included. Conversely, the more uncommon an event is, the more newsworthy it is. So rather than providing a summary of the state of the world, the news represents a daily freakshow of uncommon occurrences. It is, by its very definition, utterly unrepresentative of people’s wider experience.
I was impressed by this idea, because it gives a simple causal mechanism whereby many important facts about the world go unreported, for the very reason that they are happening all the time. So newsdesks prioritise rarities such as train and plane crashes over the daily carnage on our roads. Serial killers and terrorists get top billing, while domestic violence chunters along below the radar. The Congalese war, which has been raging for over a decade, claiming millions of victims, makes the news so rarely that many people remain unaware even that it is happening. Meanwhile skirmishes in previously peaceful regions are guaranteed headline status. Deaths due to ecstasy are reported; those due to alcohol are not. How could they be? After all, they are happening constantly. But it is in knowing the things which are happening day in day out which gives us a truer picture of the world we live in.
As you might expect, Harrabin’s law has political consequences. Firstly, it distorts people’s perception of risk. The classic example is the person who is terrified of flying, but thinks nothing of driving to work daily. But it isn’t just at the individual level that problems occur. Terrorism is a rarity in the UK, and therefore by Harrabin’s law, it gets reported and discussed a great deal. Hence, governments are under immense pressure to act using any resources necessary. How domestic violence could benefit from the same media exposure! (Of course, if it hardly ever happened, then it would get it.)
The implication seems clear: we don’t need news. What we need is importants. (Of course the two may sometimes coincide.) As for how to bring this revolution about, and how to decide what qualifies as important and what does not… well, I’ll leave that to another day.