Manufacturing Content: Choosing the News

Kiribati has made an urgent appeal to the UN Security Council for help in combating climate change. Photo: Radio NZ

Kiribati has made an urgent appeal to the UN Security Council for help in combating climate change.
Photo: Radio NZ

Freya Mathews from La Trobe University in Australia, wrote a provocative opinion piece a few years ago – suggesting the news media “treats nature as a backdrop to the dramas and delights of human life.” Mathews suggests in the 21st century, human dramas are driving nature’s destruction, and that destruction threatens an end to our delights.

The environmental crisis unfolding all around us seems to be far less important to local, national and global news companies. On the same day that scientists publish a report in Nature journal revealing that even pasture-based beef is unsustainable, The Gisborne Herald reports on the national rugby team planned visit and a court case about a local man tricking boys into sending naked pictures of themselves. Other news about the global environmental disaster that didn’t rate a mention on the day included the link between mass migration from Africa to Europe driven by climate change, an estimate that inaction on climate change will cost US$44 trillion, and climate refugees plea for help from New Zealand.

Mathews recounts a similar story about news of unprecedented ocean acidification that is leading to complete breakdown in the marine ecosystems barely being noted between a shooting and a report on sports hooligans. “I was left in stunned disbelief at the way our news media are registering and representing the unfolding chronicle of our planet’s actual – no longer merely prospective – ecological collapse.”

Likewise, I wonder are we all completely mad? Are we more interested in a sports team visit and dirty young man than evidence of the unravelling of our primary industry and it’s contribution to the global climate crisis?

“Isn’t it time to examine the criteria of significance that guide the daily construction of “the news”? asks Mathews. “The news has, after all, assumed the status of supreme arbiter of significance in our society: almost everyone stops everything at least once a day to listen to the news. No other source of information currently enjoys such prestige and currency.”

But isn’t this prestige being squandered, if those responsible for the news focus generally on items of relative triviality while ignoring the literally earth-shattering changes that are occurring at an accelerating pace all around us? Images spring irresistibly to mind of people in the brightly lit lounges of the Titanic gossiping animatedly about scandals in politics and religion while around them the vast forces of nature are closing in.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky looked closely at the way the news industry constructs their product and who’s interests are being served. In the documentary by the same name, Chomsky is giving a lecture and touches on some of these issues:

“Sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political, environmental or social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.”

“Perhaps the newspapers that arose to express the assumptions of the industrial, pre-environmental era (mid-19th to late-20th century) are now merely relics of an age that has passed. And perhaps this is true of many other contemporary current affairs outlets as well, whether print or on-line. Most such publications and outlets carry over the 19th century assumption that the natural world, perennial and relatively unchanging, is mere backdrop to the sizzling dramas of human society. With this 19th century assumption goes the further assumption that what happens within the realm of nature is not our responsibility: nature looks after itself and we cannot intervene in its intricately ordered webs of eaters and eaten without upsetting the whole kit and caboodle.”

“Our media, still so inveterately old-fashioned despite the much-trumpeted technical revolutions in delivery, do not reflect this shift and are tragically failing to convey it” claims Mathews. “Instead they are creating the impression that items about the ecological collapse of the planet are on a par, in terms of moral significance, with everyday items about crime, celebrities, scandals, financial vicissitudes, trends in lifestyle.”

“Perhaps this is the deeper reason why our newspapers, and web sites based on them, are rapidly losing relevance. As they strive to cater more and more blatantly to what they imagine are the tastes of the market, they lose their entitlement to names like ‘guardian’, ‘leader’, ‘tribune’ or ‘courier’, let alone ‘herald’. They become instead mere ‘tattlers’, purveyors of tittle tattle, to which people instinctively pay little serious attention.

At the very least, the 19th century category of ‘the news’ needs to be thoroughly overhauled. Headlines need to be reserved for what matters most, and the truly earth-shattering developments that mark our “times” need to be properly ‘heralded’, not relegated to low-key, special-interest sub-spots uninvitingly labelled ‘science’ or ‘environment’ in the depths of labyrinthine web sites or in the back pages of old-style newspapers.”

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