Monday, 25 May 2015

All news stories are proxies for larger debates

Look, I've been meaning to write about this for a long time and the notion enters my brain occasionally but it quickly gets displaced by other, more pressing things, such as how much sushi I should eat for lunch and whether I need to go to the ATM to get more cash or not. I'm also motivated to act by important things like the matter of whether I need to order more coffee. Life is full of this kind of important issue and those things won't be easily outclassed in the importance stakes by vague, half-baked ideas for blogposts regardless how important blogging is for me. Today, however, the issue of news stories as proxies for larger debates jumped out at me when I was looking at Twitter and this tweet suddenly appeared in the timeline from @SethMacFarlane (who is in TV, apparently): Next time we invade a country, I'm going to point at it and yell, "Media, look!  An actress who's lied about her age!  Go investigate!" This is quite an acerbic and pointed thing to say but it's hardly libelous as MacFarlane in his tweet is encompassing withing the ambit of his censure the entire media industry. An easy point to make, therefore, but still worth following up.

Part of the larger point I want to make here is that it's not really perfectly fair to criticise the media for giving people what they want, for a start. The thing about the media in the digital age is that journalists and editors know exactly what people are reading because they just count the clicks. So if you're going to criticise the media for writing about TV personalities then also please criticise the broader community for watching crappy TV shows. That's a small rant but it's one that is worth repeating from time to time.

But here I want to talk about the notion of the news story as proxy. Proxy for larger debates. So for example you might have a story in the business section of the newspaper about iron ore sales for a particular quarter going up. This story can provide information for someone who is interested in the economic growth of a country like China, which uses a lot of iron ore, even if the particular mining company the story talks about is of little interest to that person. Or else you might see a story about rising electricity prices. A story like this can be of interest to someone who might have little interest in electricity prices per se but who does have an interest in the solar power industry. So short, to-the-point and narrow focus news stories can function as proxies for larger debates.

In the celebrity space it's even more interesting because people read these stories for a number of reasons, including the one that the stories offer people opportunities to engage in broader debates in the community. A story about an actress lying about her age has obvious relevance in terms of its association with notions of gender as well as its links to discussions about honesty in public life, for example. So the story is not "just" about an actress who is untruthful about a matter of small intrinsic importance in itself, it also has relevance in terms that people interested in serious debates going on in the broader community can immediately understand.

But stories about celebrities are even more important because they go to our very identity. It's about the reasons we consume popular culture in the first place and the uses that we put it to. If you watch the way that young people use popular culture, for example - and everyone will have experience with this because everyone is young at some stage - you'll see that it's part of the notion of sharing, so it gets to the very roots of things such as community and identity. How do you fit in with your peers? Who are you? What do you want to be? Who are these people you surround yourself with? These are critical issues for young people even if they might never apply such language in this way to what they do with popular culture. It's about who they are, where they are going in their lives, and how they might get there. It's important stuff, and popular culture is a kind of intellectual and emotional and spiritual medium that enables these internal and external debates to take place.

So next time you think you might tell someone they're stupid for caring what a TV personality says or does just remember that for someone else this might not just be an important fact in itself, but it might form part of that person's daily communication with peers and other people who are critically important in a real and very concrete sense. These debates allow people to talk about themselves, their dreams and their aspirations. We should respect that.

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