Backsliding PR’s take on The News as religion

I am well acquainted with the news. As a child I would watch anything on TV, my first job – aged 14 – was in news distribution (paper round) and my adult life has been spent observing and feeding the news machine as a PR.

Religion is also familiar. My mother was raised a Catholic, my father a Methodist. My childhood Sunday mornings were spent at a local Evangelical church. We wore coloured clothes to my grandparents’ funeral to celebrate their place in heaven. At nine I visited the Holy Land. Teenage Friday evenings meant Church youth group and a week of each summer was spent at Christian camp.

While (some of) the moral lessons were not lost on me, I felt horrendously guilty when I admitted I didn’t feel the faith my parents held so dear.

My backslidden PR lens was recently focused on The News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton’s philosophical contemplation of how current affairs are reported ahead of the author’s appearance at PurpleBeach ‘15.

Alain believes that – in the grand scheme of things – the news is a very modern phenomenon whose power has been kept in check by the difficulty and high cost of delivery. With technological advancements breaking down these barriers, however, the news has started to assume societal functions religion once provided.

He asserts that the news has become the primary means by which we understand what is happening in the world. News anchors, reporters and commentators have replaced  ministers, rabbis and imams as chief suppliers of context to the world’s chaos and complexity.

The ascendancy of the news, however, should not stop here according to Alain. He suggests a bolder, more educative and inspirational role: it should help us to become better people.

Celebrities as saints & exemplars

Take celebrity news for instance. Alain says that our impulse to admire others is an important feature of the human psyche. Rather than trying to suppress our love of celebrity we ought to channel it in intelligent and fruitful directions. Celebrity stories should mirror the role of saints in the Catholic Church and provide “an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself.”

“If news organisations were kinder… they would present the stories of successful people principally as case studies that we could understand and practically emulate rather than simply, as it present, either admire blankly or resent.”

He suggests that those who judge the concept of celebrity to be beneath them are abdicating responsibility for anointing celebrities “to organisations entirely untroubled by the prospect of appealing to the lowest appetites.”

The conscience of capitalism

This  notion that the news should play a greater role inspiring and educating its consumers extends to Alain’s analysis of economic and business news. He writes that a perfect news service would “convey a bold sense of the economic principles that should ideally underpin society.”

Acknowledging that the evolution of news was linked to the needs of banks, brokerages and trading houses for information – something that accounts for the continued emphasis of the modern media on investor news – he outlines a future for economic and business news that looks beyond today’s focus on financial figures, share price movements and statistics.

“Business is ultimately too interesting and too significant to be described only for the sake of those who want to invest in it… Businesses should be honoured as among the most humanly important organisations on the planet which deserve to have their adventures, prevarications, deceits, passions and sufferings carefully described and powerfully evoked with all the intensity and aesthetic skill that might accompany the narration of a love affair.”

The news already provides an element of conscience to capitalism. While the law and regulatory authorities exist to ensure businesses operate within the rules  and journalists often bring wrongdoers to the attention of the authorities, the news frequently calls out corporate behaviour that – while legal in the moment – appears to work against the interests of customers, employees or the public at large. Forward thinking businesses take note of such criticism and take steps to improve how they do business.

At the same time, enlightened corporations have become more transparent. For many businesses that behave well, it can be good for business to open themselves up to the outside world to help attract customers, employees and investors. Feeding the news is only part of providing greater transparency – much of this new openness is displayed on company websites and social media outlets.

Inspirational news future?

I found The News to be a terrific read and there is much to be said for the argument that – for many people – the news has become the primary way of understanding world events. While the news industry has not been without its own difficulties and casualties, in the last 25 years we have seen the emergence of 24 hour news channels catering for a wide range of different niches and perspectives, free access to huge amounts of news on the internet and incredible levels of specialist self-published content from bloggers and businesses.

With rolling access to the latest stories and the ability to find news and views on almost any subject in an instant online, the news now caters to our desire to understand local, national and world events in real time. Why wait until the sabbath to comprehend the horror of a terrorist atrocity or the impact of a large business insolvency in your community when the news can start providing answers within minutes?

There are limitations to the view of the news as religion. Online media provides the ability for news consumers to comment and interact with other readers and journalist through forums and some people may even feel some form of kinship with those that buy the same newspaper; but it is hard to see how the news can replace the sense of community felt by that those attending religious service on a weekly basis.

Alain suggests that the news should educate. But do news consumers want this? Do we want the media to make us better people? Do stories that educate get better ratings than those that simply inform or entertain. Are editors willing to focus more resources on aspirational stories if doing so might jeapordise their audience? What would better look like anyhow?  Is the news media the best arbiter of what ‘better’ looks like?

While I am intrigued by the utopian role outlined for the news industry, the cynic in me questions whether the media in its current format are capable of delivering it. With diminishing advertising revenues and the news industry at large still coming to terms with the switch to digital, there is little time spent looking at the challenges of giving the customer what they need rather than what they want.

Alain de Botton we will discuss these things further as part of a conversation on the philosophy of everyday life at the PurpleBeach London experience on 28 April. Please email to request your invitation.

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