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The Immorality of the News

People tend to worry a great deal about censorship of the press, and to talk about the obligation governments and others are under to allow the press the freedom it needs to report accurately. But maybe we should worry more about what the press itself chooses to leave out, and think about its reporting obligations.

What does, and ought, the press to report on? It obviously cannot report on absolutely everything that happens in the world. In particular, unimportant happenings in the world (such as me making dinner) are not news. People reading newspapers seem to want to stay up to date with current events, and to make sure they ‘know what is going on in the world’ – where they seem to mean is know about the important goings-on in the world.

So, do newspapers aim to make sure people know about all the important goings-on in the world? In one significant way they do not seem to – they typically neglect to report situations which haven’t changed much since yesterday. That might sound sensible – the most economical way to keep people up-to-date about the state of the world might be to report only when there are changes, so that people know that if they haven’t read about a change in some situation, it’s as it was the last time they read about it. However, many situations change only gradually. If that’s the case, if people are to have an accurate picture of the world, they must be informed regularly about the state of these situations which undergo only gradual change. In this regard, our current media seems far from perfect. Sudden changes, like the outbreak of a civil war, or a tsunami, get reported. But there don’t tend to be updates on the gradual changes following those kinds of events – the war gradually spreading, or infrastructure of an area being rebuilt.

Do we and should we care about these gaps in reporting? We do seem to care a great deal about censorship of the press. When it comes to censorship, why do we care so much that newspapers aren’t reporting on certain important events? It seems unlikely that it’s because the newspapers are losing profits by not reporting on events which might make people buy their papers. It’s more likely that we care about the public being kept in ignorance of certain events, and them therefore getting only a partial view of what’s going on in the world. These worries seem to be justified. News outlets give the impression of telling people everything important that’s going on the world – hence it seems that people are being mislead into thinking they have more knowledge than they do.

But maybe the apparent gaps in news reporting are justified by the fact that the public only want to read news which is relevant to them. Perhaps sudden big changes are relevant, but states of affairs which continue to change only gradually are not. For example, if a tsunami happens on the other side of the world, maybe that is relevant to people, because they would want to find out if anyone they knew was in it, and because they might want to help (most likely, by sending aid). However, periodic updates on how the rebuilding of a country went after it was ravaged by a tsunami would also be relevant to people in order for them to know whether they could help. Therefore, currently our media doesn’t seem to distinguish adequately between relevant and irrelevant news stories.

Choosing what to report on based on relevance, but doing so badly, could even be more harmful than randomly choosing what to report on. The reason is that it will lead people to assume that what isn’t reported isn’t relevant. In the case we were talking about, it might be that people assume that once the victims of a tsunami are no longer in the news, the problems are over, and no further help is needed. This problem is even greater in the case of states of affairs that only ever change gradually. A person may think that they know what’s going on in the world to the extent that it’s relevant to them, yet never have read a news story on some way in which they could easily to help people a great deal. That could happen just because what they could help with hasn’t changed recently (see, for example, Neglected Tropical Diseases, which afflict over a billion people worldwide and are very treatable, but have in the past often been largely ignored). That might stop people from trying to find out about such things, or worse, lead people to brush them off as irrelevant if they happen to hear about them, because they believe that they would already know about such situations if they could easily help alleviate them.

If it is true that people have good reasons to care about the media not giving them a full picture of the world, then why hasn’t public pressure rectified this already? One reason might be that people want to be fully informed, but find it boring to become so – they’d usually prefer to read stories about things which are more fun, even if less important. In a similar way, everyone would like to be fit, but many people would rather not exercise. Because of that, people choose to pay for a year’s gym membership up front, in order to pre-commit themselves. In a similar way, we might want to pre-commit ourselves with regard to current affairs, by giving newspapers incentives to present a balanced view of all the important things happening in the world.

The above is not to say that all sources of media should provide coverage of current affairs, or that different providers of current affairs must have exactly the same content. However, it does indicate that we should try to make sure that any media outlet which gives the impression of presenting the reader with a full picture of what’s happening in the world actually does that – including states of affairs which are slow to change but none-the-less important.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you, Michelle, for this post. I agree with your point of view and would go further in my criticism : the ever-increasing “celebritisation” of the news, for example, has a host of negative impacts.
    However, I would suggest that the idea that we “should try to make sure that any media outlet which gives the impression of presenting the reader with a full picture of what’s happening in the world actually does that” could be just as dangerous as the possibility of censorship that you refer to earlier. Who will decide what constitutes a “full picture”? Who will decide the subjects whose full picture should be depicted?……
    Like it or not, doesn’t the quality of the press depend largely on the level of critical thinking, empathy, intelligence and numeracy of its readers, and thus ultimately on the quality of education?

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