The Metaphysics of Reading the News, with Alain de Botton

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

“Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher.
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual (Shop your local indie bookstore)

The proliferation of fake news lately, especially heightened during the U.S. presidential election, had me scratching my head in confusion: so people actually fell for it?

In a podcast by Planet Money, they tracked down the “Fake-News King” Jestin Coler who makes profit off of the ads he ran on fake news articles and website. Once you see it from that perspective, it isn’t impossible then that this would exist. What’s the golden piece of nugget in this story? Coler said it himself:

Like, there is a demand for this product. People want conspiracy. Like, people want fake news that confirms what they already believe.

If you think that fake news is problematic, it may be the real news that actually falls short. This I learned after reading Alain de Botton’s The News: A User Manual (Shop your local indie bookstore), an exploration and analysis of the news we consume (and are given) on the daily: political, world, economic, celebrity, disaster, consumer.

When I was still a high-schooler back in the Philippines, I remember participating in news writing workshops and contests where the bare bones of news writing were taught. I even won a contest at some point and considered pursuing journalism in college for a minute.

But I knew journalism wasn’t for me, because what I saw published in the news lacked the kind of creativity I wanted to infuse in my work. Turns out, I’m not alone in this thought.

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We consume news in various methods and from different platforms — news alerts straight to your inbox, articles on your Facebook timeline, 140-character tweets on your feed — that it’s impossible not to drown in all that information (or misinformation). The question that de Botton asks is: is the news we are given presented in a way that warrants our attention? Does it elicit something more than passive indignation, a quick (nasty at times) comment or a mere glance enough to compel us to action?

Central to the book is the way news is presented to us and the way we contextualize the information we receive. Take political news for example: we are given the facts, the political actors, the ramifications. If today’s headline underscores a politician’s incompetence, it is not hard for an ordinary citizen to be enraged. It is easy for us to point fingers, to dismiss the politician and/or the system as stupid or not working when in reality, there’s actually much that we don’t see.

What is the role of mainstream media then, when it presents us political news?

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He also delves into foreign or world news, of which we all have become accustomed to in the form of war, disaster or tragedies which need more than #Prayfor_____ posted on our social media accounts.

An understanding of human nature is what’s needed, de Botton explains: “Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow-feeling might develop across chasms.”

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