Why I Don't Do News
To read a newspaper is to refrain from reading something worth while. The natural laziness of the mind tempts one to eschew authors who demand a continuous effort of intelligence. The first discipline of education must therefore be to refuse resolutely to feed the mind with canned chatter.
People tell me that they must read the papers so as to know what is going on. In the first place, they could hardly find a worse guide. Most of what is printed turns out to be false, sooner or later. Even when there is no deliberate deception, the account must, from the nature of the case, be presented without adequate reflection and must seem to possess an importance which time shows to be absurdly exaggerated; or vice versa. No event can be fairly judged without background and perspective.
Back in the days when people used to read this blog and give feedback on it, I was often asked to comment on the lastest news stories of the day. After all: He's the English Coordinator! Why doesn't he tell us what he thinks about such-and-such that happened Overthere?
I did try at some point, I believe regarding some test cheating incident that has surely by now been completely forgotten by all, but it normally isn't something I care to do or am any good at, and neither do I feel it's a worthwhile use of my time; but as this this sentiment, like so many of mine, runs contrary to the current zeitgeist, it might require some explanation.
I don't own a television, and only watch a select few films on the advice of individuals whose intellect I respect and who insist that such-and-such a film is a work of art or has some other insistent saving grace. I prefer to experience life firsthand and consider motion pictures to consist primarily in a series of technical tricks designed to capture the viewer's attention quite independent of actual content. In this connection I consider television news to be one of the most insidiuous forms of entertainment, in that it presents decontextualized tidbits of various current events selected not on the basis of what people should watch, nor either necessarily what they even want to watch, but what they will watch. I've had this interpretation vindicated by acquaintances who worked in the mass media; they freely admitted that the whole craft is carefully geared to keep viewers viewing. The ideal news story skirts the boundary between merely sensational and too shocking to be shown. Television news presentation consists in headlines with pictures, and little in the way of analysis or context. Newspapers may contain somewhat more analysis, but suffer from the same limitations of decontextualization.
All this has a profound effect on the psychology of the news consumers, who, unfortunately, make up the majority of the population. While the average person may express that he is consciously aware that the appearance of any particular item in the news underscores its rarity--for if it were commonplace and expected it would not merit reporting--this individual seems likely to carry a subconsciously exaggerated perception of the danger of street crime or the utility of new medical or scientific 'discoveries'. (To cite a particularly pernicious example of the latter, a popular television personality here in Japan called Mino Monta, is known for his profound influence on hordes of consumers of 'health' goods; with predictability, his announcement that something or other is 'good for you' prompts a disappearance of said product from supermarket shelves until the following week, when he makes another pronouncment.)
Real change occurs slowly and is not betrayed in random flashes of a kidnapping here, a typhoon there, a union strike somewhere else; daily consumption of TV news or newspapers does not necessarily aid in comprehension. If anything, an attention to the latest news stories as a montage of disconnected events serves to reduce understanding of the processes at work and of the changes taking place on a grander scale. This requires study of the actual issues and of the historical factors surrounding the latest developments, by reading books and scholarly research--none of which, by the way, should be absorbed without question, but should always be read sceptically and with comparison to other analyses and interpretations.
A criticism put to me by a student last week is that, by avoiding the news, I won't know what to do in an earthquake. I think--indeed, hope--he was being facetious, since part of my job involves lecturing on disaster preparation, but I think the implication was that 'the news' has something to offer in the way of helping us get ready for critical situations.
One technological development for which I am earnestly grateful is the camera on the water level mark of the nearest major river, accessable online at any time, which indicates whether any danger of flooding may be present and whether, in extreme circumstances, my neighborhood may be evacuated. Likewise meterological information, immediately accessable online, which informs how I should select my clothes each day. All this truly relevant information can be got directly, without recourse to, say, a story of a murder in Africa that was reported simply because the victim happened to be Japanese, and which inevitably exaggerates the relative danger of that particular country or city in the minds of the Japanese public, at a time when perhaps a dozen wars and countless other human tragedies that occur simultaneously on that continent, with far greater historical significance, go unreported.
As a final note, I invite the consumer of news to reflect on the number of news stories ingested in the past several months, and ask: Was there even a single one that, because of some knowledge you gained from it, enabled you to better make an important decision about something affecting your life?