Making the news an inspirational read

Making the news an inspirational read
Popular philosopher Alain de Botton argues that journalism should aim to do two things today: prepare readers to tackle well whatever the future may bring, and feature more stories of people triumphing against all odds.

Popular philosopher Alain de Botton asserts on the first page of this book that his purpose in writing it is to throw a spanner into the workings of journalists everywhere.

The Swiss-British egghead adds that he is doing so because he detects a certain meanness in reportage, one that prizes accuracy above context and capitalism over compassion.

In fact, he charges, if readers do not watch out, the news - which he defines as fresh reported happenings anywhere - has the potential to "crush our capacity for independent thought".

As he writes in this book: "It is when we are incubating particularly awkward but potentially vital ideas, that we tend to feel most desperate to avoid looking inside (ourselves). And that is when the news grab us."

Journalists should take this as a big compliment, albeit a backhanded one, because de Botton proceeds to outline all sorts of expectations and social responsibilities for news outlets, in particular, to teach the masses and inspire them to better themselves.

The writer, who is renowned for his earlier works such as The Consolations Of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life and Essays In Love, does so in prose crafted so lightly and lovingly that reading The News, his 13th book, is like being cosseted in cashmere.

That sensation bolsters his rather tenacious argument in the book, that journalism should aim to do two things today: one, to prepare everyone so that they can tackle well whatever the future may bring; and two, to spotlight more stories of people triumphing against all odds, to spur readers to make a difference in the lives of others.

He says journalists have the potential to achieve the aims because he finds them "unexpectedly" idealistic folk, despite his belief that they are preoccupied with stories of sex, money and gore.

Most journalists would chafe at that "unexpectedly". After all, any reporter worth his salt would tell you that he persists in a profession often bedevilled by newsmakers who are mad, bad and dangerous because he wants to make the world a better place.

And so we come to de Botton's Achilles heel in this book - he simply does not know enough about how good reporters get their scoops. This is most glaring in chapter four, on economics.

In it, he suggests that those who report on financial markets and economic growth are more obsessed with reporting facts and figures than analysing the motives of those who provide such data.

He writes: "The journalists who work in the sector should demand that they be allowed to land the plane and add life to their numbers."

The fact is, most of the biggest news stories start with journalists digging through mounds of dry-as-dust account books to unearth fragments of a damning story.

Readers familiar with his work will know well how polarising his arguments can be, and also how removed he sometimes seems from the man in the street.

But his aim is noble - to boost the growth of impact journalism, a trendy type of news story which champions those who are bettering the lives of others through innovative solutions to real, persistent problems.

It is a cause championed by this newspaper, among others.

In doing so, he employs the elegant device of juxtaposing the arts of the past against contemporary news items plucked from various media sources, including newspapers, broadcasters and wire agencies - though, curiously, very few online media outlets.

His juxtapositions are meant to show how crucial context is in signposting the importance of a news story for the reader.

For example, he notes, the core of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina could be distilled in the humdrum headline, "Man in Russia consults lawyer". But if the person reporting on Tolstoy's epic had a strong eye for detail and knack for describing all that, readers would most likely be drawn to the story.

So it is that he urges news outlets everywhere to signal better to readers how exactly their stories fit into the larger picture of their individual lives and livelihoods.

It is a mission worth taking on, he adds, now that time-starved readers everywhere are growing increasingly indifferent to consuming news as assiduously as they did before the Internet invaded their lives with greater demands.

For all its flaws, de Botton's latest outing is very useful as a starting point for serious discussions on how news organisations should evolve to meet readers' needs in future.

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