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The News We Need

“Junk news is like junk food—a quick bite that fails to nourish.” Thus writes Sarah Smarsh for Aeon Magazine, in a thoughtful article about the news we need—versus the news we crave and feed upon in our modern media world:

Today you have probably encountered more news of the world outside your immediate experience than most humans did in an entire lifetime. Did you feel much? Probably not. Information without context strikes the mind but peters out before the heart. When you did feel something from the news, it likely was because your empathy sniffed out some humanity – you saw your child in a bullet-torn body in Ferguson, Missouri, or your prejudice in the man who pulled the trigger – rather than because the news report itself was humane.

… Page-views suggest we crave short, informative text, ‘clickbaited’ with images of half-naked or bleeding bodies – even faster variations on the TV soundbites I once helped locate on tape. The marketplace has something to tell us. But to say that the 24/7, quick-and-dirty news cycle exists because people want it is incomplete logic. Poor people in a blighted urban food desert – devoid of garden or grocer but rife with Burger Kings and Dairy Queens – don’t consume fast food every day because their bodies are hungry for French fries. They consume it because they’re hungry for food. Its lack of nutrient density often means they have to keep eating – creating a confusing 21st century conundrum for the evolved human body: to be at once obese and malnourished.

In a media landscape of zip-fast reports as stripped of context as a potato might be stripped of fibre, most news stories fail to satiate. We don’t consume news all day because we’re hungry for information – we consume it because we’re hungry for connection. That’s the confusing conundrum for the 21st century heart and mind: to be at once over-informed and grasping for understanding.

Most journalists (myself included) have always viewed “hard news stories”—the bread and butter of newspapers and broadcast journalism—as the staple of our journalism world. It’s the condensed, clear, concise report that people need in order to be informed. But if Smarsh is right, “hard news” should actually be secondary to feature stories—to the reading of those pieces that we hashtag #longreads on Twitter, or save in our browser for a weekend’s perusal. She proposes that the stories we ignore could be the sustenance we need to develop a more holistic view of the world:

… Narratives are familiar to us as magazine stories, documentaries, the occasional newspaper series. But in our lifetimes they’ve been secondary, a Sunday supplement to daily news. What if they were primary? What if, by examining our news sources with the same scrutiny we afford food labels, we chose stories that were, in fact, stories? We have now the opportunity to plug our digital devices less into the fast information trough and more into whole stories that better match the moments they describe. With a conscious effort to do so, how might our world change?

Difficult realities would still dominate the news, perhaps, but we’d recognise them as human experiences rather than abstract issues. Nourished by nuance, we wouldn’t crave another bite from our cell phones every minute. Our news stories would be no more or less accurate, but they’d be more true – and the human beings they feed, more full.

I agree with many things in Smarsh’s article. It’s a thought-provoking read, one that reminds us why we need “news”: not to fill our already-frenzied minds with more clamor, but rather to gain a broader, more complete understanding of the world. If news stories are giving us a deficient or half-baked understanding of our neighborhood, country, or cosmos, then they are not serving their true purpose. Long-form journalism gives us the ability to cover serious, complex stories with the depth and specificity they require. One example of this might be The Daily Beast’s recent article about a Columbia student accused of rape: it’s thorough, balanced, thoughtfully-reported. It takes a very complex topic, one that has been badly reported on in the past, and gives it the attention it deserves.

However, I do not think that such thorough coverage is always needed. When reporting on local news, especially, there are a variety of simple news subjects than can be covered with minimal detail and simple concision. Minor traffic accidents or mishaps, weekend events, day-to-day politics in the state or nation’s capital: these aren’t things that deserve 5,000 words of coverage. But they are still important, I would argue, for readers to know—for them to “connect” with their neighborhood and their world.

It doesn’t seem that Smarsh is condemning these sorts of stories—she is noticing instead that journalists have a habit of taking serious, tragic stories (like the plight of Iraqi refugees, or the Ferguson protests) and giving them a short, quick writeup. Why? Because shorter, more gripping stories often get more clicks on Facebook and Twitter. Because they grab the attention of a distraction-prone readership. Because sometimes, we as journalists think we don’t have the time, resources, or energy to do the necessary research.

So the difference that I think Smarsh would argue for is that journalists need to become more thoughtful curators. We need to understand the difference between these two types of stories—and we need to recognize that the latter (features) are important for long-term knowledge, while also being especially suitable for the serious stories that fill our world. This doesn’t mean getting rid of hard news altogether—but it does mean consigning it to its proper place. Journalists are not merely meant to spew information out into the public sphere. We are meant to serve as bridges: to connect readers with previously unknown people, ideas, or information. This role often requires that we write more than 500 words—it may even require that we venture away from our computers, and out into the real world, as often as we can.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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