• T.W. Emory

Too Much of a Bad Thing?

You can tell you’re starting to get old when you begin a topic with the phrase, “When I was young…” Having gotten that out of the way… When I was young, news and news coverage seemed less frantic and far less fever-pitched, than it does today—and there was far, far less of it. Back then, a morning or afternoon newspaper was the main source of news for most of the adults around me. The radio provided some news too, of course. As for television, up until 1963, the Huntley and Brinkley nightly news program on NBC ran for only fifteen minutes and our local TV news was the same length. So only a half hour. Furthermore, Huntley and Brinkley didn’t start broadcasting on Saturday evening until 1969. In our family, it was mainly my dad who wanted to watch TV news, but I don’t recall him doing so every single night. The amount of news coverage back then seemed more than enough to satisfy most people. Why the difference today? What happened? To borrow a phrase: a “new means of achieving old ends” is what happened.

In summing up lessons taught by history, Will and Ariel Durant wrote in the late 1960s: “Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends.” And with a nod to prior methods of news-gathering and news-sharing the Durants also noted: “We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village.” What more might they have said about ‘peace disturbance’ by what goes on in today’s Digital Age? What indeed?

The arrival of cable and satellite television brought about what’s called the 24/7 news cycle, where competition for both audience and advertisers has become greatly intensified among media providers, spurring them to provide up-to-the-minute news in the most gripping manner possible. Online reporting has only helped to quicken the overall pace of news delivery and has heightened its compelling nature. According to a 2016 survey of the Pew Research Center, a majority of U.S. adults now get their news on social media with most of them doing so via Facebook. All of this helps to explain (to me at least) why it is that what once came to you at a day-by-day pace and in a comparatively subdued and businesslike way, now comes flying at you moment-by-moment in a sensationalized fashion meant to captivate and entertain. Now, dramatizing news probably goes back to when ancient people sat around a campfire listening to a tribal member enthusiastically relate an incident or two before all drifted off to sleep. However, what is new, is the amount of news delivered every moment of every day, detailing both local events and those from far-flung areas of the earth.

Even prior to the impact of cable news, back in the late 1970s, Barbara Tuchman (another twentieth-century historian) remarked on the curious toll taken by such news saturation: “Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening—on a lucky day—without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: ‘The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold’ (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”

If what “Tuchman’s Law” asserts is demonstrably the case, and if the Durants were correct about what results from increasing “our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet,” then arguably, we now live in an age where the sheer quantity and constant bombardment of news events is probably producing disproportionate anxiety and agitation to those living in the disparate areas of our global village, who are far removed from, and likely never to be affected by, those reported events.

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