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Jakarta Post

What we talk about when we talk about news

  • Nezar Patria
    Nezar Patria

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, February 7, 2020   /   04:45 pm
What we talk about when we talk about news Illustration of news (Shutterstock.com/Photo Kozyr)

Does “news” as we know it today still have value? Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss critical thinker, says he stopped reading the news 10 years ago. What an unpleasant message for journalists, and a disadvantageous one for the media industry. For almost two centuries journalism has helped shape, or at least interpret, the modern world through newspapers, radio, television, and now, the internet.

Yet Dobelli does not believe that the world has become better through journalism. For him, the news nowadays is merely a “disease” to the brain and brings two negatives. First, reading the news only trains our brain “to skim, to surf, to digest very quickly and not go deep”, as he writes in his latest book Stop Reading the News (2020). Second, news content tends to be mostly negative, which causes chronic stress. It has the same negative impact on our body as sugar has on our blood.

Dobelli’s proposition may be irritating to media companies, especially the leaders joining National Press Day celebrations this Sunday; but he simply wants to convince people that we should stop reading the news. Indeed no one is obliged to read the news, and his book is the latest reminder of the problems of daily news consumption today.

Classic journalism upholds the inverted pyramid principle; the more important information is placed on top, followed by the less significant items. Some context and information is thus lost from a brief report. 

Noted writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb presented an illustration supporting Dobelli’s views; if a bridge suddenly collapses with a car on it, the media will highlight the car and its passengers. The most important, relevant thing is often forgotten: the underlying cause of the bridge collapsing, and whether it could happen to other bridges.

So how do we place Dobelli’s criticism in today’s world, where the news has turned into some form of entertainment? What is valuable in news, whether “new” or “traditional” media, given the explosion of hoaxes, while the media are more addicted to click-bait to survive this digital era?

Dobelli would probably laugh at our media, which is so obsessed with shallow issues, like slapstick comedy. The public space has recently been filled by the likes of the “Sunda Empire”, fake kingdoms popping up from nowhere, grabbing attention away from scandals involving two state-owned insurers, which are believed to have inflicted losses of trillions of rupiah on their clients.

How much have we paid attention to the world community’s initiatives in helping each other to fight the coronavirus outbreak? Should the media take part in blaming, if not cursing, China? While the Japanese were pouring aid to the unfortunate Chinese citizens besieged by the deadly virus, our media instead focused on protests surrounding Natuna being made into a quarantine for Indonesians -- largely returning students from Wuhan.

As journalism has not helped improve the world, Dobelli suggests a “news diet” so we can feel more peaceful. But wait. Those who favor news dieting may no longer have a problem with freedom of information. They can access news directly from the source, or speak to the experts, in seeking credible data to make any important decisions.

I cannot imagine Indonesia, or any other country, without news. The Indonesia's Press Council records over 40,000 online media across the archipelago but only a handful produce quality journalism. The rest are forced to succumb to the system governed by Google search engine, or Facebook. The social media tech giants use mass media content to rake in larger audiences, to attract advertisers. Unfortunately, we in the mainstream media get dragged into this situation, which often forces us to comply with an “unfair” business model.

Having experienced the New Order’s suppression of press freedom, Indonesians understand that a piece of news presenting the truth can save their lives, or at least make authorities change their decision. A situation that is reported honestly by a free media will lead to better decisions, especially in the event of a crisis.

BJ Habibie, the late ex-president who succeeded Soeharto, revealed why he supported press freedom by abolishing media publication licenses. “I cannot simply take for granted a ‘just-to-please-the-boss’ report from my staff. I need information from a free media so that I don’t get lost in making decisions,” he told journalists several years ago.

Habibie then allowed the press to grow freely. Now, not one post-authoritarian Indonesian regime has dared to blatantly gag the press. In Indonesia, press freedom has become a sort of demarcation line between a dictatorship and a democracy. We should be proud of our championship of press freedom in Southeast Asia and the world, encouraging a press free to criticize authorities and to investigate sensitive issues on economic and political interests of the ruling elite. 

I don’t support Dobelli’s cynicism about news’ irrelevance but the news media does have to clean up their act to be far better in this digital era. For the sake of click-bait, the media sometimes ignores important matters considered not interesting enough. A story about how a celebrity cooks in her kitchen is far more attractive to a reader compared with one about an “omnibus law” to create much-needed jobs.

Indonesia’s media should heed the advice of American veteran journalist Bill Kovach, who reminds us that journalism has the duty “to make the significant interesting and relevant.” Therefore the classic formula still seems effective.

Dobelli himself doesn’t stick strictly to his “news diet”. He told a British media outlet that quality journalism is necessary but not the bite-sized pieces of daily news that he described as chaotic to the mind. “Investigative journalism is always relevant,” he said.

Yet investigative journalism is not cheap and not easy. In a digital media world that prioritizes speed, moving slowly is tantamount to subversion. Investigative journalism combines investigative diligence and journalists’ intellectual work, requiring strong commitment, and of course, the courage to go against the flow.

It is only with such courage that we can say that journalism remains relevant.

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Chief editor of The Jakarta Post and a member of Indonesia's Press Council (2013-2019)