In a series of articles, Josh Wells and Matthew Hill debate what constitutes news.
By Josh Wells
After reading Matthew Hill’s latest instalment to our debate on what constitutes news my immediate response was to walk away from my keyboard recognising defeat when I saw it. However, prior to doing this I decided to cast my eye upon the article that had beaten me one last time. In doing so I realised that despite the strength of Mr Hill’s argument it is not a perfect critique, and for those few who agreed with my last article I felt the need to drag myself off the canvas and point out the flaws in his critique of what constitutes news.
Mr Hill rightly points out the undesirability of cherry picking news, only then to cherry pick himself. He emphatically states that the story which has the most suffering should be deemed the most newsworthy. Yet this, itself, is cherry picking. There are many features of an event that make it newsworthy, such as the happiness or pleasure an event creates, or how many readers of the news find the event interesting. For example on May 29 an asteroid passed very close to earth. This made headline news despite no suffering occurring. On Hill’s criterion such an event would not have been on the news at all for there was no suffering in the event. This is my first concern about Mr Hill’s utopia, he needs to develop a criterion to which different features of news stories can be judged such as happiness or pleasure. If he adopts suffering as the only measurement of an event being newsworthy, he also accepts the numerous vices that accompany such an idea.
One of the main arguments Mr Hill pits against me is simply misinterpreted. He states how I believe that “the human mind is incapable of imagining a situation in which between 50,000 to 100,000 people die”. This is not what my view was or is. The point I was making in my first article is that the human mind cannot conceive the difference.
Before condemning such a statement pause and think for a moment: imagine a conflict and that 50,000 people have died. The feeling you may have is one of horror and sadness. Now add one more death, do you feel any more horrified or saddened? Now add another one, and another. The point here is that the immediate emotions to mass suffering do not intensify as the numbers of deaths increase. This is my point about the civil war in Syria, whilst the news of additional deaths in Syria may remind us of our emotions on the issue; they should not intensify or increase such emotion.
Mr Hill also makes a claim that I say such deaths are not noteworthy, this is not true. I state that this is only the case when such news would install no new emotion, due the perception of such an event being part of the status quo. This can be shown by the protest in Turkey, much less suffering occurs in these protests than the Syrian civil war however it is more noteworthy as we were previously unaware of the issues in Turkey whilst we are aware of the suffering in Syria. On Mr Hill’s criterion we would not have had the protests in Turkey as headline news and we would likely be less informed, due to the reduced coverage the event would receive.
Matthew Hill also invites us to imagine an impartial situation in the world of news. He argues that in such a situation we would desire news that is independent of our geographical situation. That is to say for Mr Hill, we would desire the news which has the most suffering. However if the purpose of news is to inform your action, your understanding of the world, then you desire news that affects you. Therefore if I am unaware of my geographical position I would want my news chosen on the principle of which events would have greatest impact upon me. This is based on the premise that I am a self interested being, although it seems to be the case that most people are.
This article does not show that Mr Hill is wrong but it places an onus upon him to come up with a more sophisticated way of constituting news. Whilst the variable of impartial suffering is important, it is also insufficient independent of other variables.