Snacking on the News
...and our shortening attention span.
(SPOT.ph) For the longest time, the average Filipino got his or her news from the radio, the papers, or the six o’clock news. All of them were prefaced with the impression of objectivity: that because they provide balanced views or “Serbisyong Totoo” or are “in the service of the Filipino,” everything about them is truthful and/or factual.
Back then, there was no reason to doubt the news. After all, objectivity was personified in the booming voices of radio announcers, the initials of stringers and correspondents, and the stiff poise of TV news anchors.
In the past few years—and the rapid pace of the past few months—many Filipinos don’t do this anymore. In the world’s self-professed “social media capital,” the emerging habit for at least 40 million people is to source their news from the Internet. However, the reins are no longer held solely by what some people derisively call “Mainstream Media” (capitalization intended). Today, the news (or what passes for it) is sourced as much from celebrities and satire sites, from “trending” news aggregators and even ordinary users exercising their rights as “netizens.”
In The News: A User’s Manual, the French critic Alain de Botton describes the pace of news as “relentless.” Botton laments: “The news hub has the institutional amnesia of a hospital’s accident and emergency department: nightly the bloodstains are wiped away and the memories of the dead erased.” If anything, that statement captures our daily encounters with news. News isn’t just about knowing, it’s about feeling. We know that today’s news is contextually the same as yesterday, but our tweets and Facebook statuses treat it like something new and novel. We feel that it’s all new.
And with the relentless pace of media comes a certain mistrust for it: one shared across social divides both real and imagined. The veneer of trust has somehow crumbled under the weight of the fast pace of the news itself. To a lot of people, news has become “bias(ed),” subject to the whims of “oligarchies.” Suddenly, everyone is a “journalist,” or aspires to some level of “journalism.” You see ordinary people lecturing news correspondents on “journalistic objectivity.” Or for the most part, some people now demand that the media cover “the positive side of things,” or “more important things.”
Marketers often refer to “snackable content:” bite-sized pieces of information that can easily be reacted to and engaged with. As user attention spans decrease, there is a seeming need for brands and organizations to share information in easy bits that you can read on the elevator, or in between hurried cigarette breaks. These “snackables” often take the form of short videos or images or excerpts or clickbait headlines, to name a few. Snacking on the news, as it seems, is the new norm for a significant fraction of 40 million Filipino Internet users.
Whether it’s an incendiary post from a celebrity who supports a certain politician, or a meme that glorifies Martial Law, these “snackable” bits of news (or what passes for it) seem to be more effective at capturing attention more than radio, print, or television. It’s gotten to the point that actually professing to “read beyond the headline” becomes either an affirmation—or a claim—to intelligence and/or the moral high ground.
De Botton argues that rather than being bits and pieces, news should be a narrative of sorts: news should analyze and scrutinize the histories and contexts of why things are the way they are. But there are limitations to that: news has to sell, and not a lot of people are willing to buy into it. News has to be detailed, but there is space and airtime to consider (what with other news items and commercials and ads that all help sustain a news operation). News has to be objective, but that old saying from campus journalism still holds true: to write is already to choose.
Because news today does not adequately capture all the factors that breathe life into a story (or why a story is a story), we’re somehow persuaded (or perhaps forced) to believe that all of them happen in a vacuum. Like how everyone in a position of power is an idiot. Or how every problem in the Philippines can be traced to the bogeyman of drug addiction. Or how the nuances of our tenuous diplomatic relationships don’t matter. Surely, the world is much more complicated than that.
But all that is to argue from a privileged position. The news itself is expensive; a single book can be an astronomical purchase for families who depend on a breadwinner’s pittance. There’s really no time to follow the news when you’re working overtime on a job that takes a chunk of your wages in taxes. There’s really no time to dig deeper into the news when your Internet connectivity really doesn’t allow you to go beyond headlines.
News takes the character of seemingly cheap fast food because it takes a lot of privilege to examine and dissect news items beyond the Facebook meme or the two-minute stand-upper a Senate hearing gets. The most we can do is to rage on the state of the world on the basis of bite-sized pieces of information. Or to try to change it based on what little information we have (or in the case of news outfits, what little information they can provide).
I guess there’s really no easy solution to news as “snackable” news; we just have to deal with it. At most, it expands our choices: rather than being a singular harbinger of truth, the news landscape today offers particular versions of it, depending on what kind of truth you’re willing to accept (or is favorable to your own biases). But at some point in our lives, we all have to consume meals bigger than snacks, or news pieces much longer than what we’re willing to consume. And it’s not because the announcer’s voice is louder, or because the correspondent looks better, or because the paper is a little thicker.
It’s only because the relentless pace of life in today’s world—with all its crimes and changes and cataclysms—can only be survived if knowing and feeling works in the same relentless pace as the headlines.