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News, newsworthiness and ‘truths’

Published on 26 February 2013
Updated on 04 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

An Oxford Don (or Doña? – since my friend Bi is a lady) called me up the other day. She had been asked to participate in the seminar Translation and Language in the Media, and asked me for my three-penny worth of opinion. I laughed out loud.

Ever since Jacques Derrida argued ‘there is nothing outside the text’, academia is obsessed with what may be lost in the text and forgets the context.

We take for granted (but no longer believe) the New York Times self-important slogan ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’. There are no such things as ‘news’ out there, waiting to be picked up and chosen for printing. ‘News’ is just a story – any story. In fact, we, conscious beings, ‘invent’ about a physical fact. As Paul Feyerabend wrote in Conquest of Abundance: ‘There is no escape: understanding a subject means transforming it, lifting it out of a natural habitat and inserting it into a model or a theory or a poetic account of it.’

Alternatively, ‘news’ are mental states about the social reality in which we swim after having created it. Or it is something we create out of whole cloth when we let our imagination go wild – like poetry. ‘News’ is an ‘observer-related feature that is ontologically subjective’, wrote John Rogers Searle in The Construction of Social Reality. ‘News’ is a social fact and reflects someone’s (or collective) intention.

We are full of news all the time – that is why we gossip. Of all that has happened in the world, newspapers pick a handful of stories for wider circulation – the rest somehow evaporates. The choice may be innocent, but remains a choice that deprives almost everything that is happening in this world of its voice. Most news is ‘orphan news’. This is a fact.

Who decides what is ‘newsworthy’?

So the next good question is: who makes the choices? Ever since the ham-fisted attempt to create a New World Information Order (NWIO) at UNESCO in the 1970s, the discussion has raged about a ‘fair’ airing of news in the media.

The proponents of the NWIO were certainly right in arguing that the selection process was skewed (I’d even say: badly skewed).1 Traditionally, Western consumers delegated the gathering and vetting of news to the newspaper (i.e. ‘the news maker’) and paid handsomely for this task (the price of each copy or subscription was significant).

The selection process was not innocent. It reflected not just ‘consumer interest’, it shaped a coherent worldview as well (some called it the ‘party line’ or ‘elite view’). The paper basked in the delegated authority and ‘made’ news and shaped the future of the ‘news’. Its stereotypes and ideologies permeated subtly society and influenced the opinion-making process.

Around this basic situation, whole structures – or the ‘ways of doing things’ – emerged. News agencies located near the readership and news stories from the periphery had a difficult time percolating up to the core.

Willie Gillis Cat's Cradle by Norman Rockwell
Willie Gillis Cat’s Cradle by Norman Rockwell (National Museum of American Illustration)

Compressing reality to its ‘essence’

While experts argued back and forth about how NWIO technology dissolved the issue, electronic media eroded the monopoly position of the Western ‘news maker’. Competitors sprung up and managed to reach sizable audiences.

Often, alternative versions of ‘news’ go viral. In fact, today just about anyone can make ‘news’ and get an audience. The attentive reader has reclaimed the role of choosing ‘news’: for a few issues nowadays, he is able to obtain alternative interpretations (whether, at the end of the day, he is wiser is another matter). He surfs for free on the net, but pays for the effort in the currency of time (his greatest resource): he needs to spend time verifying and analysing the plethora of versions at hand and contextualise the news.

This surfeit of information creates second order problems. For one, we become sloppy about checking facts – no time, and in any case, they become obsolete in no time flat. We go by approximation, rather than precision.

Additionally, in an effort to ‘conquer abundance’, we continuously ‘compress’ reality to its ‘essence’. The totality is whittled down to something whose only merit lies in the fact that it is ‘portable’ and can be used in some ‘communication’ of sorts.2

The outcome is paradoxical: the more we know, the more approximate and superficial our thinking seems to become. And this at the very moment when the ‘small difference’ makes all the difference.

Distorted views and ‘truths’

When drumming up support for the Agreement on the European Economic Area, which was up for a referendum in Switzerland in 1992, I became painfully aware that listeners in the audience perceived my qualifying statements as waffling. I could not bring myself, however, to speak in one dimension only (I did not garner many votes, I suspect).

The matter goes much deeper than political oratory. I’m painfully aware of how much disappears in this process of ‘concentration’, until what’s left is prejudice or a distorted view. Tragically, these distortions are then labeled as ‘truths’, and are used as dogmas.

I’m highlighting a paradox here: the more we know, the less we seem to be able to grasp it, and are likely to discard the baby with the dirty water. The hopeless search for ‘truth’ replaces the discussion of ‘choices’, with a consequent loss of richness in the conversation.

At an even deeper level, I’m painfully aware of how difficult it is for me to step outside my own point of view3, and the one of the society I have grown up in.

Indeed, experience is transformative and we cannot step out of our own and our cultural past. My very language is weighed down by the words I use: ‘essence, form, category, quality, quantity, non-contradiction, capacity’. All these terms are steeped in the Aristotelian method and impose the framework on what I’m trying to say. I struggle with words that betray my thought.

What about translation? Of course meaning is lost in translation.4 Let’s face it, however: this is a second order issue.

  1. Just to show how ‘reality’ can vanish without trace: I’m reading Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire. If I were to ask history buffs about this empire, I’d probably get a blank stare. Yet, from 1720 to 1875, the Comanche and their nomadic culture ruled most of what is now Texas and its surrounding. It was an incredible feat: upon meeting the horse, and then metal and guns, these bands of Amerindians within two or three generations came to rule the countryside. They were playing the Spanish in New Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and later the Americans against each other to extract their necessities, which were complex, for one can’t live of buffalo meat alone. Getting carbohydrates in their diet was one of the Comanche’s main concern, and they raided to get that, horses, and captives they sold into slavery to the ‘civilized’ Europeans.
  2. Just an example: I’ve made the case against the use of the term ‘Asia’ to include anything ‘east of Aden’ or thereabouts.
  3. Just last night, I was reading a text taken from Marshall Sahlins’ essay The Original Affluent Society. He shows how we judge hunter-gatherer societies through the lens of sedentary ‘civilizations’. One need not agree with him to profit from the exercise of intellectual displacement.
  4. I quote myself, as this blog is getting long: see Aldo Matteucci Language and Dilomacy: A Practitioner’s View in Jovan Kurbalija and Hannah Slavik’s Language and Diplomacy.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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1 reply
  1. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    Aldo, can you explain “orphan
    Aldo, can you explain “orphan news” please: it’s hard to evaluate whether something is a fact if one doesn’t know what it refers to. I shall respond to your points about skewed selection in a blog. Meanwhile, the Free Word event I spoke at sought to address many of the points you raise. It’s starting premiss was: “That the production of media is an opportunity for ideological expression, we know already. But what about the very process of getting the material to those media producers in the first place, before they can adjust it to their news agendas?” Here’s the link: https://www.freewordonline.com/content/2013/02/how-do-you-translate-the-news/

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