My kids keep coming home from school with the recommendation that we extend their reading by making sure they read newspapers, and that they keep up with current events by watching the news. I certainly believe they should know what’s going on in the world. We talk about current events around the dinner table all the time, and they are well aware that I have strong political views. They have some pretty strong views of their own. But I will never agree that kids watching the news is a good idea. Even I don’t watch the news. Instead I pick and choose very carefully the news I read online.
We have this vague idea that “news” is a public service. That it is designed to inform us, educate us, and keep us up to date with what’s going on in the world. But it’s not. It’s not a public good. For all a strong democracy needs a well informed population, “news” is increasingly not serving that function. We need to keep firmly in mind the actual purpose of news: to make money. To sell newspapers, to sell advertising spots, to make money for its owners. That is the purpose of news. There is no other. Even the government broadcasters design their news to lift ratings and thus justify their own existence, and they have to match the commercial networks pretty closely to manage that.
I have no deep philosophical objection to making money. That’s not the problem. The problem is that to garner page hits, ratings, and market share, news has to be the stuff that attracts attention. So a quick look at the front page of a commercial news site will reveal: details of a horrendous murder (overseas), details of a horrendous rape, a heroic rescue from a warzone (overseas), speculation about Schapelle Corby’s boyfriend, criticism of a model for being too thin/fat/attractive/unattractive, a famous person’s suicide (which happened months ago, but details of which are on the front page almost every day), and fashion tips about what you absolutely must do.
Go look at the front page of any online news service. True, I picked a Murdoch paper for the above summary, which is, perhaps, a little unfair. But go look at the ABC site and ask yourself which of those stories my kids “need to know” in order to understand the world.
“No shirt fronting as Abbott talks MH17 with Putin.”
“China unveils sophisticated stealth fighter aircraft.”
“Authorities investigate travel company accused of rip-off.”
“Voters want right to recall poor performing MPs, survey says.”
“New York doctor now free of Ebola discharged from hospital.”
(top 5 headlines from the ABC site this morning)
Young people (and the rest of us!) suffer from increasing levels of stress, depression, and even anxiety disorders. They need to come to grips with the world around them, and develop coping strategies for the realities of life. But these are not the realities of life, they are ratings grabbing manufactured dramas. They are not events around them. They do not include vital knowledge about ways the world around them is changing. They do, however, include a lot of things to get anxious about. A lot of ways to misinterpret the world. A lot of ways to raise their stress levels and make them feel like the world is out of control. A murder that is sufficiently grisly will get airtime around the world for months after the event, and then again when the murderer comes to trial. Celebrities get airtime constantly. But this is not “current events”. This is saleable gossip.
Sure, we might talk about some of these things around the dinner table, but not in headlines. Not with sensational trauma stories designed to get ratings, but with reference to justice and compassion, in ways we believe our kids are old enough to understand.
And it’s not only the killings that we don’t want our kids to see. It’s the twitter attacks, the abuse of public figures because of the way they dress, and the obsession with Kim Kardashian. None of this is healthy. None of this is in the public interest. As far as I can tell the messages are: “The world is a terrifying and dangerous place, your body is both public property and the wrong shape, and celebrity equals importance.” None of this is stuff our kids need to have shoved down their throats 24/7. Certainly they will need to learn how the world “works”, but not at 7, not even at 11, do they need to hear these relentlessly negative messages, when they are so ill-equipped to process them.
When I watch the news I get increasingly alienated and depressed. I hate to think what it would do to an impressionable, compassionate 11 or 7 year old.