Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The News Through a Wabi-Sabi Lens

Odds are, the mention of disinformation, news or information just prompts a pall of weariness and a look or click toward something more distracting or diverting, but that is the problem, isn't it?

At a time when meaning-making is more difficult because of the amount of noise that is overwhelming us or leaving us in a quandary of doubt and resignation about what is what and who to trust or rely on for information or -- dare I say it -- truth, it is incredibly tempting to just divert ourselves from the planet-wide, confounding-as-a-Gordian-knot train wreck that is the world we live in and retreat to a vantage point replete with the take on events that we prefer or a steady stream of distraction until clarity returns.

In a world of complexity, that clarity will only return after a massive tumult and a settling of the dust that will likely be decades or centuries in length. Given those timelines, it would be worth reconsidering the reliability of the information we receive and the sources that provide it to us. Marshall McLuhan said that the news was a product and the demise of newspapers underscores the simple reality that the news, as it has been delivered by mass media sources, is just as much a product as a widget. A news item - whether an article, TV report or the entirety of a broadcast, paper or magazine - complies with the dictates and tastes of advertisers and news consumers that they are striving to appeal to.

There was a time when people settled for the thud of the newspaper against the door or the supper-hour newscast as the sources for news and information with little thought to the template that prevailed on those media regardless of the community they were intended to serve. There has been a bland sameness to the news and, despite the integrity we attribute to print or the frivolity we attach to television with the blow-dried assurance and other tropes, the consistency that prevails despite the audience is a leading indicator that the news is something that is manufactured to specifications that ensure profitability of the organization providing that product. The reliance on those particular products has induced a passivity among news or information consumers, who struggle to find meaning given the atomization of news distribution that has replaced the once-reliable pipelines that have become obsolete.

Two things are occurring currently. There is a market shift due to the emergence of online news sources and those organizations which have not adapted - more frequently newspapers than radio or TV at this point - have fallen by the wayside. With the online world, there is further splintering of the audience. People have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the echo chambers of their choice: right-wing, left-wing, mass-media, alt-right, alt-alt and beyond. In this instance there may be a different sense of the product as niche producer of "news" and "information" adapts to the audience, business model and mission that it sets out for itself.

Audiences, however, are only getting slightly more engaged in putting knowledge together and it may be that their sole acid test fort he information they consume is whether or not it is what they want to hear or read. Audiences will express their preference for information that confirms, rather than challenges, their worldview and there is probably a preference for a degree or lack of depth in the news. Despite the frenzy of news that arrives via social media, there is an emerging niche for "long reads." There is, of course the preference among some audiences to look no further than a headline to determine what is occurring.

Despite the number of news sources that have emerged, one common characteristics remains in news reporting. There is still a preference to pursue closure and resolution to a story or to shape news around a narrative not unlike that in fiction. The temptations to impose this structure on a story or dispose of a news item altogether if it is proving to have the energy requirements of a Russian novel are one of the obstacles to understanding our world as well as we could.

At a time when there are so many options, there is that much more opportunity or requirement to handcraft your understanding of the world and current events via a number of sources and beyond that to take a critical view of the news sources and the processes, perspectives and biases that mould their take on events. It is also necessary to acknowledge the complexities and paradoxes that a story -- whether a news story or a different narrative -- contains. Taking an in-depth look at a single news event over a longer period of time (from a variety of sources) rather than passively accepting a packaged version of reality from the 'if-it-bleeds-it-leads' factory will allow a news consumer to discover familiar patterns, themes and subtleties that will be much more informative or enlightening than a heady consumption of apparently serious, but unambiguous and unthoughtful coverage of adrenaline-pumping bleak news about where we are at.