Writer Alain du Botton on News, Media Literacy, and Whether Reporters Should Adjust Facts

In the preface to The Mechanical Bride, media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s first book of popular culture analysis, the author writes that “A Descent Into the Maelstrom by Edgar Poe kept coming to mind. Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by co-operating with it. The present book likewise makes few attempts to attack the very considerable currents and pressures set up around us today by the mechanical agencies of the press, radio, movies, and advertising. It does attempt to set the reader at the center of the revolving picture created by these affairs where he may observe the action that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. From the analysis of that action, it is hoped, many individual strategies may suggest themselves.”

Writer and philosopher Alain du Botton says his new book, The News: A User’s Manual, is also meant to give people strategies for understanding media.

“It’s a book that’s not really about the media from an industry point of view, it’s for the user,” he said in an interview. “It’s basically trying to say, ‘You gotta take care with this stuff.’”

But the book isn’t just meant to help the audience avoid the misunderstandings that stem from the way news is delivered—in both technique and medium—it lobs a number of suggestions at the news media (called “the news” in the book), too.

Some excerpts:

Alongside its usual focus on catastrophe and evil, the news should perform the critical function of sometimes distilling and concentrating a little of the hope a nation requires to chart a course through its difficulties.

…the news should not neglect the equally important task of constructing an imaginary community that seems sufficiently good, forgiving and sane that one might want to contribute to it.

The news shouldn’t eliminate angry responses; but it should help us to be angry for the right reasons, to the right degree, for the right length of time – and as part of a constructive project. And wherever this isn’t possible, then the news should help us with mourning the twisted nature of man and reconciling us to the difficulty of being able to imagine perfection while still not managing to secure it – for a range of stupid but nevertheless unbudgeable reasons.

Journalism has been too modest and too mean in defining its purpose merely as the monitoring of certain kinds of power; a definition that has harmfully restricted its conception of itself and its role in society. It is not just a de facto branch of the police or the tax office; it is, or should be, a government in exile that works through all issues of national life with a view to suggesting ways to build a better country.

Faced with corruption, idiocy and mediocrity, rather than remaining stuck at the level of gleeful fault finding in the present, the news should seek instead always to nurture greater competence in the future. However satisfying and important it can be to bring down the powerful, journalistic investigation should start with a subtly different and not invariably overlapping goal: the desire to try to improve things.

To write the book, du Botton says he “took in an awful lot of news.” He also writes about visiting the BBC to see how the news is made. I talked with du Botton about his book and the responsibilities he sees for journalists and audiences if news media is to better serve the public.

On the need to make coverage more interesting:

“You’ve got to help people to care.”

“If you tell people 200 people have died but you never told them they existed in the first place, if you don’t give people a sense for what it is to be normal, then the disruptive event that the news goes out to seek is not going to have much impact. The news is so disaster-focused, particularly in its foreign coverage, that we only ever go countries where there is something wrong. That hugely reduces our capacity to identify and ultimately to care.”

“The more you know about the normal conditions in a place, the more a dramatic incident there will get you to care. The terrible problem is we know more in theory about more places in the world than ever before. Our fiber optic cables stretch around the world. And yet in a weird way we are provincial. We are more concerned now with just what’s happening in our backyard, less able to make room in our imaginations for what’s abroad than ever before.”

On the passage in his book that says foreign correspondents should be able to engage in “adapting a fact, eliminating a point, compressing a quote or changing a date” to make coverage more appealing to readers:

“What I’m after is to understand the essential truth of a situation and not the, as it were, literal facts that may be attending to the larger truth. I think sometimes journalism schools and even journalism outlets are a little bit confused about what they’re really trying to do. Of course accuracy matters, but the accuracy that really counts is the ultimate meaning of the piece.”

“On the whole, the whole basic premise of news is that we trust the news to be telling us what’s going on out there. Yes there are people who are skeptical, but they are a real minority…”

WFPL: “If you have an audience more able to scrutinize something and they find out something is untrue in a presentation of facts…”

AdB: “I think you’re making too much of it. I’m not saying the news should be full of lies. I’ll dismiss this point in one line. I’m saying sometimes, in the interest of getting a message powerfully across to the audience, there are certain liberties a narrative journalism can take, like a Norman Mailer, to make a point more effective. But I certainly don’t advocate major fabrications of news. It’s absolutely essential the audience feels very secure in the facts it is receiving. But let me say this, accurate facts on their own cannot necessarily come to matter to an audience.”

On the responsibility of the audience to pay attention to stories that might not be of the utmost interest:

“The food analogy is a very good one. One view is to say blame everything on McDonald’s. The other is to say we’re going in there. We’re the ones who are going to eat this stuff. What this is an argument for is backing news organizations that do it differently, that do it well. We need to get educated. We need to brain up as consumers, rather than saying, ‘Oh well. There’s only CNN and I have no choice.’”

Listen to Alain de Botton at Kentucky Author Forum (March 4, 2014):

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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