Issue February 25, 2014

News you can lose

LEO chats with Alain de Botton, author of ‘The News: A User’s Manual’

In school, we are taught — or we are supposed to be, anyway — how to deconstruct and find meaning in Shakespearian plots. What we aren’t taught is how to decode the front page of The New York Post.

Alain de Botton has a problem with this. He is the philosopher and essayist behind “The News: A User’s Manual,” a new book that explores how people feel about news and asks what news is doing to us as individuals and a society. Among his gripes are the inability of journalists to popularize important news and an obsession with Watergate-style journalism that only looks out for crooks.

Wary about a non-journalist telling us how to do our jobs, we emailed de Botton some questions to answer during his European book tour. Here are his responses, edited for length and American grammar.

LEO: You write in the book that news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by faiths. That’s a bold statement. Can you elaborate?
Alain de Botton: We used to look to religion (many of us still do) to tell us what is right and wrong, what is meaningful, what is good and bad. We used to follow prayers at just about the time when the morning and evening bulletins are on. News has, in many ways, replaced religion as the touchstone of guidance and authority. Of course, as I try to point out in the book, this shouldn’t really be the case. It’s called THE news, but really it’s always only ever just SOME news masquerading as the whole thing.

LEO: You’ve written quite a few books and done events across the world. Obviously, you’ve been written about in the news. Have you learned anything about media or being a public figure from those firsthand experiences?
AB: You learn firsthand how “the story” of someone is, of course, so different from the reality. Anyone who has firsthand experience of any story reported in the news will always tell you exactly the same thing: 90 percent of the reporting is not quite right or accurate. That’s sobering and something we should all bear in mind.

LEO: A good chunk of your book deals with our obsession with tragedy and disaster, or the potential for it. What do you think about the wave of websites like Upworthy that push feel-good stories and videos with positive, uplifting messages? Is that an adequate balance for the fear-mongering we typically get?
AB: Earthquakes, cyclones, war, malnutrition, disease, crime, poverty, sexual abuse — it often seems as if it’s not really news unless and until it’s very grim. News is the disturbing, tragic, appalling stuff. The job of the media is to puncture complacency, keep the bastards honest, reveal corruption and punish hypocrisy. Does the news have to be sad and nasty? Only if you’re doing it right.

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that a reaction has set in: a movement in favor of a greater supply of more positive stories. We’re told that the number of white-clawed crayfish in the Yorkshire Dales is on the up. A grandmother in Germany has given up money and lives by barter. In Scotland, the recycling of domestic waste is going better than you might think. In Holland, some children have a pedal-powered school bus.

In isolation, these are charming. En masse, they are very annoying. Being told to cheer up is grating — whether the order is coming from an over-chirpy friend or a sequence of headlines.

I’m not into good news or bad news. I start from a different place. My primary move in selecting stories is to ask, “Would it be helpful to know this?” This determines whether a story goes in or out of my mind. In order to live your life well, you need to deal with negative and positive information. News can very well be helpful when it is talking about appalling events. And it can be extremely unhelpful when the stories it tells us are cheery.

LEO: On the consumer side, what can a person do to help usher about better news coverage?
AB: Be more conscious about what they are consuming. The analogy with the food industry works well. An individual can’t alone reform abattoirs and meat production. But you could exercise choice about where and what you eat. The same holds true for news. 

For more of our interview with Alain de Botton, click here.