The News: A User’s Manual

The public and the media both expect journalists to get their facts right, but is the concern for accuracy resulting in boring news?

Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

Alain De Botton seems to think so.

According to him, journalists need some of the skills of writers who can get readers to read and relate to their stories.

In his book, The News: A User’s Manual, he finds reason for public indifference to foreign news.

The news has to be more compelling, he says, to interest readers and viewers.

The news with art

He says that “foreign news should be willing to adopt some of the techniques of art”.

Sceptics argue, “Foreign reportage will always bore us … because we are at heart only ever interested in ‘ourselves’”.

“But that cannot be the whole story,” says De Botton. “We are quite capable of being gripped by or even sobbing over the fates of individuals who lived, governed and died not just within our own lifetimes but hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago …”

The appeal of Julius Caesar

He then asks, “How is it that we can care about what happens in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?”

The answer, he says: “Julius Caesar confronts timeless themes such as how we decide what we owe to our friends and what we should give to our country, how we should respond to rumours and plots and how we might distinguish between apprehension and panic. It looks at the way good intentions can usher in disastrous results and considers the roles played by error and blindness in the affairs even of decent men.”

He adds: “We can’t expect the average news story to be written up with Shakespearean skill, but we might insist that it pay a degree of Shakespearean attention to universals, especially where the particulars are likely to seem off-puttingly foreign.”

The news, ideally

In other words, he wants the news to be presented in such a way that people can relate to it.

And that. he thinks, needs some artistic skill.

Journalists should not only be accurate but able to “facilitate imaginative contact, practical assistance and mutual understanding between us and other populations,” he says.

Alain De Botton seems to be very exacting of journalists. It may be because he himself is not a journalist – a fact pointed out by Ian Jack and Peter Preston, two eminent members of the profession who were critical of his book. (Read Ian Jack’s review in the Guardian and Peter Preston’s review in the Observer.)

Real-life stories

De Botton, however, is not the first to want the news to be told like a story.

Narrative non-fiction or real-life stories have a rich heritage. Think of writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, who produced notable books in this genre. Capote’s In Cold Blood is considered a classic…

Then there were the gonzo journalists like Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe. I enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism – colourful pieces like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. (That was also the title of his first book of collected essays, published in 1965.)

New Journalism is no longer new, however, dating back to the Sixties.

New forms of journalism

The media is experimenting with other forms of news. Data journalism is the current buzzword. There are also pioneering websites like Vox, which tries to explain the news in Wikipedia-style, and The Intercept, dedicated to investigative journalism. There is also a market for long-form journalism, or lengthy articles. That is why you find Kindle Singles on Amazon.com and there are websites like Longreads and Longform.

People like me will always want to read though whether everyone wants the news to be told like a story is open to question. New apps like Circa News are presenting the news not as stories but as summaries you can take in at a glance on your mobile phone.