Recently I’ve been giving some serious thought to my aversion to cable news, local news programs, and the vast quantities of stories that circulate on the internet. I came to this rough conclusion:
There are essentially two kinds of news: events and trends that change the lives of millions of people, and one-off stories about violence, theft, or kidnappings.
Basically, the vast majority of what I don’t like—stories about celebrities, crime, “human interest pieces,”—are stories that are interesting primarily because of their randomness. They have little to no meaningful and lasting effect on the lives of most people.
Coming to this conclusion, I did pause to think of the callousness—perhaps necessary—of this. Someone getting shot is a tragedy. And it’s an important event that could change their life forever or even end it outright. But I don’t have the time nor energy to hear all of those stories one-by-one. I don’t think anyone—even if they spent their whole day listening to such stories—could know, understand, and empathize with all of them.
But a single one-off story can easily fill a whole hour of time. Shows like NBC’s Dateline, ABC’s Primetime, and CBS’s 48 Hours are essentially dedicated to doing that. Their go-to format is to take one sordid incident—a murder, a kidnapping, a robbery—and tell you all the details they can about it. This can be compelling as a storytelling device, but it generally fails as a way to show what’s really happening in the world.
These shows—and cables news networks which spend much of their airtime telling similar stories—are ostensibly engaged in the act of conveying news. But they often fail to document the broad brushes that truly matter historically and personally. Unless you’re involved in these one-off events it’s unlikely to affect your life. But everyone everywhere is affected by record prices for oil and food.
Having said all that, there’s a difficult-to-define line separating one-off news from the events and trends stories in which I am legitimately interested. One murder in Denver over the previous weekend seems to me a one-off story. But five murders are certainly something I’d want to know about. That quite nearly constitutes a trend and could be a valuable fact to know. Between one and five is a difficult line of delineation that I can’t begin to tackle.
Natural disasters are also one-off stories. Definitionally, they happen only once and are unlikely to have an impact on me unless they were nearby. But when the volume of tragedy and destruction reaches above some arbitrary benchmark—which, again, I don’t really know exactly—I care about them.
Now one could even say that many of the things that I do consider news—the war in the Congo, or the mess in Zimbabwe, the conflict in Darfur—are one-off trivia as well. After all, as an average American the state of democracy in Zimbabwe is unlikely to ever directly impact my life. But it does, I would defend myself, matter in the lives of millions of Zimbabweans and millions more in surrounding countries.
It’s very easy to break the world into categories, but much harder to accurately define the countours of those categories. I have no doubt that almost all news involving movies stars will always be lowly one-off news to me, but that doesn’t provide clean delination for the rest or what crosses a journalist’s desk in a day. I don’t consider this the final answer to the question of “What news is worth knowing?”, but I’m rather certain it’s a step in the right direction.
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