On the language of the news and telling stories
Quick! Look behind you. There’s an explosion, and someone is furiously backflipping over crocodiles, while at the same time clutching three incredibly small animals in one hand and performing an unbelievable interpretative dance of her religious beliefs with the other. Meanwhile, the stock market has fallen – nay – crashed, Elon Musk has brought us to Mars and The Terrorists Have Won. Furthermore, that movie you saw yesterday was just the worst movie ever.
If you believed any of the above statements, now is the time to hang your head in shame. None of this is true. We are still on Earth, nobody ever does backflips and The Martian (2015) was a perfectly nice film.
There’s worthwhile questions to be asked about what should be news, and with which language we should present it. After all, to decide what is the news is also – to a certain extent – to decide what is an event, what is worth focusing on. Everything that happens, happens, but somehow certain happenings get picked out as being more culturally or politically relevant. I think this is only reasonable – seeing as you can’t report everything – but seeing the influence news has I also think it’s worth reflecting upon.
There’s a good argument to be made that the language of the news we consume plays a significant part in shaping our worldview. If you see “newspaper X” as a credible source of knowledge, and if said newspaper starts predominately running pieces on the dangers of banana peels, then your mind is much more likely to be on the watch for lurking banana peels. Meanwhile, any tangerine or orange that crosses your path – even if they were just as dangerous as bananas (if not more!) – is consequently much more likely to slip from your field of vigilant suspicion. As a result, exaggerated, sensationalist or hyperbolically worded news can be pretty harmful for productive discussion and thought.
Furthermore, when recalling or documenting an event, I argue that there’s not really such a thing as just the facts. We could say the child slipped over the banana peel because it was in the way. We could also discover that she has mild vertigo and that she was having a fuzzy day. We were then previously wrong; she slipped because she is a vertigo-sufferer. We could take it a step further and explain she slipped because her parents – as an exposure therapy – have taught her to confront her irrational fear of fruit, instead of avoiding it. She then slipped because of her upbringing. Or we could acknowledge that most events – which are usually a lot more complex than banana-slipping – have an incredibly wide context of causes to consider.
We’re not bad people for not knowing all of the causes of an event (after all, how could we have known?), but it’s a good thing to try to acknowledge how much we might not know, that we can only tell a story, and that we can only tell it with the facts we’ve chosen. Otherwise we do reality – and with that, ourselves – a disservice.