Alain deBotton on The Media

  • The news bookends our lives

    • first thing in the morning 

    • first thing before bed 

  • 15 million people will check BBCNews website over 4x/day 

  • What are we looking for? 

    • What kind of information?

    • What do we think it’s going to change?

      • It’s so unclear. 

  • We may be introduced to something new (a theater show, literature), but no one tells us what to do when we come across material that is deeply puzzling, full of mystery and power

    • We’re not quite the same people after we’ve looked at this stuff 

  • Relax on a Sunday reading the newspaper?

    • Content is not very relaxing 

    • on a Sunday : People stopped going to Church and instead turned to the media 

      • and yet - When it comes to news we’re curiously  passive and timid consumers of the information 

  • In the 18th c people were looking forward to an age of more freely available information 

    • A rallying cry of social reformers looked forward to the future, imagining that by knowing more we would care more and do more good

      • "It hasn’t quite happened that way."

        • Though we now have more information than ever, its utility is at best questionable 

  • Two ways to keep a population passive, resigned, accepting of the status quo

    • 1. Stop all news 

      • i.e. North Korea 

    • 2. Flood the news

      • Give people so much news they can’t remember what was going on yesterday 

  • deBotton argues for a more therapeutic type of news 

    • geared towards our inner and societal news 

      • What are the genuine requirements of its audiences, vs. the passing titilation of them, or the fear and panic 

        • Can news become genuinely useful (vs. merely gripping, compelling, etc.) 

  • News hosts must be aware of what causes viewership to rise and fall 

    • There used to be an order of things: Important news at the front, less important news at the back. 

      • That hierarchy has broken down. 

        • i.e. Taylor Swift’s legs are now more “important” (popular) than global warming 

        • A serious problem for any trying to communicate serious ideas 

      • It should be that what’s important is popular 

  • A lesson from the Catholic Church

    • In the Renaissance they wanted people to focus on the truths of the gospels 

    • They put up alter pieces (advertisements) everywhere - designed to make the important popular - they used the Taylor Swift of the day 

      • Popularization is a very important skill and one that serious journalist’s neglect at their peril 

        • An absolutely fundamental part of communication in a democracy that is very distracted 

        • i.e. "Tie those legs to the Arctic Melt!"

  • Archetypes: Stories that keep coming round and round 

    • If we reduce the number of stories we can get a handle on the archetypes 

      • "There’s a lot less news than we think"

  • Empathy : How come disaster based world news (i.e. 300 people murdered in the Congo…), we can hear it, then get up make a cup of tea and go to bed no problem. Why? 

    • Hard data (300 people dead) makes us forget about trying to make us care

      • You can’t care if they’re dead if you never knew they existed 

        • If their lives are uninteresting and abstract, so will be their deaths 

    • We have immensely rich powers of empathy, but they need to be stirred into action

      • Art is the name of the discipline designed to get big and important ideas more powerfully, more imaginatively into our heads. 

        • In the realm of news, the art form predominant is photojournalism 

          • Unfortunately few will pay for this work — great material is not recognized 

          • A good picture is a bearer of new information, it advances the state of knowledge 

            • One can stare at this picture for a long time and develop some of the deeper feelings that  bad picture (despite color balances etc.) is going to deny us 

            • We need good quality images and more importantly we need good quality art 

        • We need to be seduced into caring 

  • Aristotle’s TRAGEDY: There is a human appetite for very dark stories involving people who are prey to some passing passion, fury, darkness, and do something utterly catastrophic ruining themselves and others around him

    • Witnessing tragedy is beyond rubbernecking, it plays a role in building up civilization 

      • The disasters and misfortunes of other people are important to us because they teach us fear and pity 

        • The lesson is that we are ALL quite near the edge of disaster all the time 

    • The NEWS is so scared about compassion for those who have done bad things, scared that we will want to “open the prison doors,” that is doesn’t take us to that Aristotelian tragic cathartic emotion 

      • Todays’ news brings us the raw material, doesn’t take us to the edge, merely leaves us feeling perturbed, gripped, knowing there’s something we’re searching for but unable to offer us redemption 

        • It’s important we find a way to USE this material

  • Car crashes, plane crashes —>  A heightened awareness of death, a tool to help bring the meaning of life into focus 

    • We’re searching for the meaning of life 

    • In Medieval times a skull was a popular piece of home decor - either a literal skull or a painting - designed to focus your mind on the omnipresence of death in order to remind you of what matters 

      • We are vainly searching for that when we encounter an awareness of loss and other tragic accidents

        • We are compelled, because it is important, but unresolved because the news doesn’t tie up the loose ends; no catharsis

  • News makes us scares of everything - We’re constantly being terrified 

    • Bird flu, swine flu, cockroaches, strange UFOs, martians, etc.

      • We live with so much news-induced terror

        • It’s deeply anomalous : We wouldn’t have murders on the front page if people were committing murder all the time - it’s there because it is deeply unusual 

          • We forget this basic point: News headlines are a distorted picture of our society; we’re constantly losing a sense of how things really are 

  • Health News : Presents the utopian ideal that perhaps we can crack death 

    • The news does not accept that fact that we’re all going to die; gives us the hope that we might crack it - if we just get this new fruit juice / eat more walnuts / wear these socks to bed -- our problems will be solved! 

  • Celebrity : It’s important for a society to have celebrities 

    • We need role models — the idea of a role model is fundamental 

      • The problem is that we’ve abandoned the making of role models to the lowest common denominator 

      • Society used to be surrounded by saints 

    • A well functioning society has useful role models 

      • This has broken down - partly because elites refuse to accept the seriousness of the job of role-modeling 

  • Envy : The media makes us envious — News should warn us: “Warning: Envy!” 

    • Concentrated doses of envy 

      • i.e. Elon Musk. Under 50. Founded eBay, and PayPal, and putting men on Mars, and developed an electric car company, and has 5 children, and worth $12billion… and we’re supposed to be happy about this :) without suffering any damaging effect 

    • Part of our Neo-Christian heritage is that we’re embarrassed of envy; we shouldn’t be embarrassed about envy we should put it to use 

    • Inside every envious attack there is a clue (however foggy) of something we should be trying to achieve or attain 

      • We should probably keep diaries of envy 

        • Start to study those names of who makes you envious you’ll see patterns emerge that 

    • We live in mobile societies where the possibilities of obtaining things is unfortunately a little bit too close to be put completely out of mind - we know that it’s possible.

  • Bias : Good news is unbiased (just info presented without trying to influence you), Bad news is very biased 

    • Not true - You need the right sort of bias - some sort of guidance, what are we to make of the facts? 

    • i.e. An article on genocide - someone for, someone against. 

    • Give us a sense of the real options we’re facing 

      • Who’s getting what and why? What are the options for change? 

        • There’s a big middle ground between Marxism and the status quo 

    • People who care very deeply know that things are wrong but have been watching the wrong kind of news 

      • A desperate naiveté and sentimentality allied with real energy to change is a recipe for disaster 

        • After a while these guys get hosed down by the police and everything carries on 

      • The news is partly responsible for creating a world that marries up this kind of passion for change with ignorance 

  • Part of the problem is that the news is obsessed with “bad guys” and it hates systemic problems 

    • Most of the problems facing our civilization are not the work of anyone that you could tidily put in handcuffs and carry away

      • It’s the work of people not necessarily evil but misguided 

      • I.e. the housing crisis — it’s a messy story 

        • Journalists are all looking for their own Watergate story where they get to be the big hero 

          • Most problems are much subtler than that 

  • The most important things that have happened in the history of humanity have not happened in the last half hour