News and the meaning of life

April 16, 2014

What’s so compelling about ‘news’?

While an average book on philosophy sells 300 copies, there are 40 million people every day who log on to ‘The Mail Online’.  As a philosopher (and author) Alain de Botton was curious as to why, and we were fortunate enough to hear him speak in Melbourne in March about his new book ‘News:  A User’s Manual’.  His theory at a broad level is that we look to news for instruction on how to understand life and find meaning in it.  In older societies, religion (or some form of it) often served to instruct and interpret.  In modern times we are still seeking knowledge and understanding but most of the news we consume is not well adapted to helping us understand and learn how to live well.

The book identifies several different ‘archetypes’ of ‘news’ stories that can attract millions of readers.  This could be a celebrity doing something routine like going to the shops or walking through an airport – and the theory goes that it engages our interest because it gives us a way of connecting to and understanding that we are, in some small way, like that person. In this case it validates the need for the mundane and routine in our own lives.  We could use this knowledge to take comfort that life is mostly about the small things every day, and help us to manage our expectations and accept that moments of brilliance, greatness and adulation are going to be relatively few. 

So then why don’t we draw these lessons? 

Why do we continue to relentlessly and often obsessively consume news, but continue to feel dissatisfied? De Botton suggest two reasons: the first is that most news fails to truly engage us – it doesn’t provide us with sufficient context to really understand why what it is communicating matters, and doesn’t tell the story in a compelling enough manner for the message to interest us.  He suggests looking to new ways of story telling that are revealing, provide new information and connects at a human level. He points to the arts, particularly photography, which provides great examples of how we could achieve this.

The other way is to make better use of the news by spending time thinking about our reactions to it.  For instance, de Botton keeps an ‘envy diary’ by taking notes when a well-known and successful person close to his age made him feel dissatisfied with his own life. After some reflection he concluded that it wasn’t the money, young wife, or expensive car that sparked his envy, but the person’s bravery in taking on new business opportunities, and decided that he would try to be braver in his own life. 

While there are probably fairly few of us who have the inclination, skill or time to reflect on the deeper meaning of our emotional reactions to news items, there is potential for the news to do more of this work for us. While news is generally focused on presenting facts in an unbiased way so that we can do the analysis for ourselves, most of us could do with some more instruction in how to glean the lessons there are to be learnt from them.  The fatal car accident or aircraft disappearance acts as a reminder of the brevity and fragility of life, but news coverage of them shouldn’t just shock and paralyze us, it should also draw a connection for us -- encourage us to live life well, value what we have and make the most of our opportunities.

Is increased personalization and tailoring of news content perhaps the answer?  We could focus on our key areas of interest to streamline our consumption and build a depth of understanding.  The problem with this is that we then risk not hearing other perspectives, which could challenge our thinking, and we sidestep the difficult questions of why we reject the things we do.

The learnings here also go beyond regular ‘news’ items to other categories such as travel, dining and entertainment, by connecting with the understanding that our desires to consume particular things reflect a deeper ambition to get closer to the values they represent. They can also provide a pathway to achieving those things – a symbol of the possibility of the person that we could become.


‘The News:  A User’s Manual’  Alain de Botton, 2014.

If you’re interested in a philosophers’ approach to news – check out The Philosophers’ Mail –  but not if it’s the weekend – they take a news Sabbath to give us time to think about what it all means.