Saturday, February 26, 2011

Feb. 26: Sometimes, it's not their fault

Today's headline: Another storm hits NB.

I read the headline, and a light flashed in my mind. Of course. I had wondered what made it so hard to see out the car windshield last night. And I wondered what all that white stuff was that I had to wade through to get my paper this morning. (Congratulations to the T&T deliverer who had gone through a foot and more of snow at every house to get the paper as close as possible.) My quick mind put two and two together. It must have been  - a snow storm.

Yes, "Another story hits NB is a pretty ridiculous headline.  But that's not the fault of the editors.

The nature of any newspaper is that any news in it is at least a day old. Of course, we already knew that a snowstorm had hit. But how could it be left off the front page without some readers complaining that such a storm should have been covered? You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Until almost a century ago, a newspaper was the only source of news. When they relied on sailing ships for information, it was commonly weeks late in reporting events. Even to the early 1900s, newspaper news could be days old, even older. There was no source of instant news. Then came radio, TV, and the web.

The T&T can be criticized for being trivial, misleading,biased, and even loutish. But an even deeper problem, which it shares with most newspapers, is it's news is out of date even as it is being printed.

What we need is not headline news so much as context for the headline news. There's a civil war in Libya? What do we need to know to understand that?  Our public schools rank lower than Manitoba's? Interesting. But we need to know a good deal about what that means. Education isn't a horse race in which the winner by a fraction of a second is good, and all the rest are dog food. Is Manitoba way ahead? Or is it a difference of two percent - in which case it's no signicant difference at all. Nor does it prove there's anything wrong with the system. In fact, parents and economic and social environment are far more important factors.

We need context. We need to understand the big picture. We know Haiti is poor. We don't know how it happened - so we really don't understand anything about it. (After all, Haiti produces big profits for exotric fruit plantations and for clothing factories. Why not for the Haitians?)

We know there's a good deal of anti-Americanism in Egypt. Is there any reason for it? Or is it just that them there ay-rabs is all fanatical terrorists? Without context, the headlines and news reports are largely a waste of time.

Radio, especically private radio, and TV, especially private TV, are poor at providing context. Radio relies heavily on "pesonalities" who attract listeners, but who rarely know anythng about the context at all. TV relies on show biz fast pacing, quick bits and on to the next story.  The web can be good - but there are also lots of crackpot and propaganda sites out there; and it takes a bit of experience to sort them out.

We have never in history had such an abundance of information. We know we're at war in Afghanistan. But without context, we don'tt know why we're there. (No. It's not to protect the womenfolk; and it's not because Saudis crashed planes into the Trade Center.)  We know we had a snowstorm. But, without context, all that we know is that we had a snowstorm. What does it mean?

Newspapers have known for years that they have to develop a new approach to covering news in a world that has so much more news so quickly available. They haven't found that new approach; and there's no doubt it's going to be a difficult problem. But we have to move on it quickly because the damage to rhe reader is already pretty serious..

All over the western world, at least,, the control of print news has fallen into the hands of local and regional monopolists - usually monopolists with an axe to grind. The result is that we have a population that knows more but understands less than any society in history. And the newspaper has become simply a device to keep people abosrbed in trivia and propaganda.

People need to understand. They need context. If we go on using the news just to keep people ignorant of what is happening, to manipulate people by encouraging fear, hatred and prejudice, we shall pay a heavy price. And very soon.

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