Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Is News?

Since Lindsay Beyerstein from Majikthise gave the Richardson lecture earlier in the semester, one thing she said has really stuck with me. News, she said, is not what is true, but what is happening. For a story to get reported, it needs to be connected to an event. Anything connected to an event, whether worthy or not, whether pushing an agenda or not, can be reported. If you have something that needs to be known, hold a press conference. Your issue is not enough, no matter how important, but if you have a press conference, that can be covered.

Of course, the problem is that our worldview is affected by the news that gets reported and unless we have the facts that allow us to (1) understand the context in which the event is happening and (2) have the full set of facts necessary to critically evaluate the report, this sort of news reporting is either pointless or misleading. If we don't understand the difference between Sunnis and Shi'as, we would be unable to really understand the sectarian violence in Iraq and therefore we would fail to really comprehend the meaning of any reports regarding, say, Muqtada al Sadr's folks leaving al Maliki's cabinet. The news may be the happenings, but if we are to understand the happenings, we need the context.

When we do get any background, it is from experts. Who are these experts? In some cases, they are authorities in the field. But how do they find them? Do they do a lit search? Ask for references from others in the field? They are often people with books on the topic or they are found through news services where they author press releases. I authored such a press release around the holidays, musing on the reason for the proliferation of gift cards. That press release was read by a reporter at the Sacramento Bee and suddenly, I'm an expert getting quoted in an article. It was also read by a writer for Ladies Home Journal and now I am again quoted as an expert in the current issue (page 16, right above the article on who buys into astrology). Now, I think there was some insight in what I wrote and I think it is part of a larger conversation about materialism and human connection that we should be having, but at the same time, I'm not doing research on gifts.

So if we need to be educated to make sense of the news, but the news will not provide what we need to be educated, how do we break the circle?