By Sarah Myers
You’ve heard about #MeToo, you’re moderately aware that President Trump visited Japan and China recently and you read BuzzFeed thinkpieces every once in awhile. In other words, you’re moderately well-informed. You’re also not reading this article: Segments of the population who aren’t particularly interested in the news don’t generally find themselves in the depths of The Daily’s opinions section.
But those of us who do self-identify as news junkies, who religiously read The New York Times and pride themselves on knowing what’s going on inside and even outside of the U.S. – what are we so excited about?
My day starts with The Washington Post – it used to start with The New York Times morning briefing, but this summer I made the bold decision to take a walk on the wild side of liberal news sources. Thanks to consistent — some might say obsessive – reading and watching, I can tell you about all sorts of problems. I can tell you about the famine in Yemen – and the one in Saharan Africa. I can tell you about Germany’s struggles with clean energy and about the ICC’s ongoing struggle to fairly police and build relationships with African governments.
All of that is nice, on some level. Having a widespread, even if superficial, knowledge of current events is a good way to convince people – including professors – that you’re an educated and informed person. In the end, though, that’s all that I’m achieving.
Almost none of the people who read about famines will do anything to help the people who are actually starving. Maybe they don’t have the time or money necessary to do so; maybe they don’t know how; maybe they quite simply don’t feel a desire to help. That last one is often written off. People like to skate over the fact that millions of viewers or readers will learn about a war, or a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack and feel badly for the victims without feeling any particular need to help those people.
It’s hard to be satisfied with the current situation. Society as a whole pays a great deal of money and goes to a great deal of trouble in order to find out bad news, but our collective ability to respond to that news in productive ways is marginal at best.
Changing that situation is not simple. Perhaps each of us can individually pledge to take action after reading every news story. That’s not likely to work, though. Individual pledges are seldom effective (see New Year’s resolutions). Furthermore, the chances that individual readers independently find and engage with organizations or actors who are effectively working to improve a particular situation are slim at best.
Another option is to embrace firewalls for online news – in order to read an article, readers would have to pay one to five cents, with proceeds going toward organizations identified by the article’s author. Unfortunately, as many news outlets have already learned, most people are not willing to pay for online news. Although the knowledge that fees are going towards a worthy cause might increase the likelihood that people fork over the money, charitable firewalls could just as easily further discourage readers from acknowledging or learning about problems that they aren’t personally experiencing.
Reporters could integrate recommendations for reader engagement into their stories. If, for instance, I wrote about falling standards in journalism, I could recommend that readers support organizations like ProPublica. That example brings up an important concern, though – news reporting is meant to be impartial and unbiased. Most reporters probably aren’t encouraged to send their readers to other news outlets. Furthermore, reporters recommending that readers donate to or support organizations could become the subject of popularity or influence contests among charitable organizations.
To be honest, I don’t have a solution here. I will likely continue to inundate myself with news stories and rarely take action to fix the problems about which I’m reading, and I don’t know how I can change that or how society as a whole can convince me or anyone else to go beyond three minutes of concern. I can attempt to set goals for myself – look for a way to positively impact at least one issue a month, for instance. I urge you to do the same, and to do so publicly. Changing societal norms about how we consume and respond to news about current events requires a great deal of effort and a great deal of publicity, but it is worth it.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.