The nature of news in a new world

Dog bites man was not news. Man bites dog was. But in recent times, the news seems to have shifted into ever more improbable terrain, even by the lights of a generation that grew up in the shadow of momentous change. Consider the events of recent weeks in Britain: a newspaper, The News of the World, sold and read in the nation for 168 years, has been summarily closed by its owner, Rupert Murdoch, who subsequently was splattered by a shaving-cream pie as he testified before a panel of lawmakers about a sordid phone-hacking scandal.

“Over the past two weeks, a torrent of revelations and allegations has engulfed some of this country’s most important institutions,” Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament. “It has shaken people’s trust in the media and the legality of what they do.”

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the underpinnings of the Western world have fallen into disrepute while China’s economic power looms on an ever-closer horizon. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we knew that the alternative to Communism was democracy. The world was in balance between past and future. In the early 1990s, the Gulf War had clear aims to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and a clear end when they had been routed. A decade later, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, turned the kaleidoscope again.

The Arab Spring, once unthinkable in a regime of iron control by insouciant elites, has turned into the Arab Summer and soon-to-be Fall without a clear vision of where revolutions are going in Egypt and Tunisia. Despite a last-minute bailout of Greece, the longer-term survival of the euro currency, barely more than a decade old, is still a matter of fevered debate.

The dominoes of potential default stretch from Greece and Ireland to major economies like Italy and Spain. But debt is something that raises a bigger question in the US: will America default on its multitrillion-dollar borrowings?

And that perhaps is what makes the news so different now—we know where we came from; but events offer no clear signposts to the future.

Another adage from journalism school was that all news is local—and so it still is. Yet, few things remain local in a new and unfiltered world of tweets and social networking, bloggers and broadband. Potentially, all news is global, or at least viral.

The so-called mainstream media have lost their cherished claim to act as the sole filter of raw information.  

So what is news?

It is, still, the moment of disclosure when hidden facts are revealed: whatever else has changed, the notion of a scoop has not. Indeed, that raw hunger for exclusives was a contributing factor in Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, made all the more visceral as traditional newspapers fight for survival against digital upstarts.

News is still the grist of our understanding of the world around us, beyond the narrow perspective of our own backyard. It is the incremental step propelling our comprehension of events. Once, purveyors of news claimed that their product signaled the destination, too.

“Read all about it,” the news vendors cried with a degree of chutzpah, as if the stories on those inky front pages contained all the answers.

These days, the call might need some rephrasing—less catchy but more modest—to say: “Read what we know so far.”

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