Sunday, December 05, 2021

Why Is It News?

      Tam was grimly amused at the TV talking heads this morning.  A news anchor had just remarked that medical experts were saying the omicron variant was no reason for panic, and then smoothly turned to a map showing an animation of when it had been found in each state so far.  (The New York Times is saying 16 states as I write.)

      "'No reason for panic,' but they're going to give a running countdown of states anyway," she fumed, and who wouldn't?  When we talked about it later on, she remarked that once you're in the basement during a tornado, the block-by-block account of the thing's path isn't going to make you any safer, either.

      As a news consumer, she's right -- they're not helping her.

     The thing is, the news isn't there to calm or panic you.  It's helpful (to whatever extent that it is) to you almost as a byproduct.  News is formalized, reliable gossip.  That's all it is.  Reporters are the same people who once peered over city walls, spoke to arriving strangers and listened at doorways in the castle, then went down to the pub and told everyone else about it.  At the root, this is fundamental human behavior: we want to know what's going on, and will listen eagerly to anyone with information to share.  Gossip-mongers, town criers, early newspapers; the emergence (re-emergence) of dependable mail service meant editors and reporters could communicate at a distance: newsletters, from correspondents.  The whole thing grew up, helped stoke revolutions, and told itself noble tales about being a calling, a force for good (but bad people have newspapers, too: basic news is morally neutral and editorials slant every which way).  We have a notion these days that the newspaper, the news on radio, TV and websites is there to help us.  

     They can't even see you, those people on the other side of that page, speaker or screen.  Most of them sincerely want to do good, at least as they see it, but news remains morally neutral: it's what happened, reported when they found out about it.  Their job is to tell, and as accurately as they can; it might be helpful to you or it might not be.

      Omicron?  Based on what I know about human nature in general, the broad range of people's reactions to the pandemic (especially as we close in on a third year), the pent-up desire for holiday travel and gatherings, and the infectiousness of the virus, I'm sure it's in all fifty states by now (and I wrote as much the other day).  The news is only tracking when it is actually found for certain.  And yes, it is newsworthy when a case shows up in a new state -- but we're already in the tornado's path, and we have each made whatever provisions for shelter that seemed prudent to us.  We're well into this storm season.  Batten down the hatches, make some popcorn and tune in.

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