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The News

A User’s Manual

By Alain De Botton
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The News by Alain De Botton

The News (2014) reads between the lines of the constant stream of today’s news – news to which many readers are becoming increasingly indifferent. This indifference isn’t so much the reader’s fault as the media’s. Constant competition in a crowded market results in news outlets failing to package stories in a way that’s appealing, engaging and, most of all, informative.

Key idea 1 of 8

Political news headlines don’t engage readers because they fail to provide context.

Does this sound familiar? You bring home a newspaper with every intention of reading it from front to back, yet you barely make it through a couple of articles before it ends up in the recycling bin. Well, don’t worry – you’re definitely not alone.

Many readers today feel disengaged with the news, especially when confronted with headlines on political issues that seem obscure and complex.

Take this BBC headline from 2013: “Tenant’s rent arrears had risen during a pilot benefit scheme.”

If you made it past this headline, you would have discovered that the government began paying housing benefits directly to tenants instead of landlords, and that the tenants ended up spending these benefits elsewhere, and, in the end, actually had more trouble paying their rent: an interesting story.

But the headline makes it sound very dull, and what’s even more troubling is that the small article that follows doesn’t even try to explain the issue by putting it into the context of social reform.

To be engaging and digestible, serious issues need to be presented in a broader context. If only presented with a fragment of a complex subject, readers will simply not understand or be uninterested.

It’s like asking someone to read a paragraph from a masterpiece of fiction without any context and then expecting them to understand why the passage is great.

For example, at one point in the novel Anna Karenina, there’s a description of a man sitting in the waiting room of a lawyer’s office. On its own, the description is meaningless. The beauty and emotional pull are only understandable if you know that the man is waiting to see his lawyer because he wants to divorce his wife, who has fallen in love with someone else. And that, if the divorce is granted, his wife will be shunned and completely ostracized from Russian society.

The news could take a tip from novels. Only by contextualizing and framing their stories, and thereby communicating what’s at stake and showing how the story fits into the grand scheme of things, will news outlets engage and inform readers.

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