Movement without meaning, a “dictatorship of the urgent”

December 11, 2013—I’ve been thinking about all news TV channels like CNN or CBC News Network or France 24 or Sky News. I’ve been wondering whether they sometimes do more harm than good in distorting the important and inflating the trivial.

CNN LiveMy thoughts are spurred by the remarks of Gilles Finchelstein who works as a Research Director at Havas Worldwide in Paris. He’s also head of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a social-democratic think-tank in France.

In 2011, Finchelstein published The Dictatorship of the Urgent, an examination of how and why our lives are lived more and more speedily. This week, he gave an interview to Le Monde on how all news channels are having an impact on political life in France. It’s not all positive, and his analysis is pertinent to all mass media societies today.

Finchelstein argues, and I agree, that all news channels frequently seem obsessed with speed, live reporting, and MTV-like hyperactivity. They are also constrained by limited resources to retain audiences while filling airtime 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result, all news channels are sometimes led to breathlessly promote topics of questionable news value which then take on inordinate importance in viewers’ minds. Information becomes spectacle, and the constant repetition of the same “news”, no matter how banal, can lead to a form of audience hysteria.

This information acceleration and concentration makes many feel that they can’t keep up with the news, that the world is spinning faster and faster. It’s a small step from that for people to feel inadequate as citizens, suggesting that all news channels contribute to citizen disenfranchisement. To be sure, there are many other factors at work, but the impact of all news channels on our daily life shouldn’t be under-estimated.

For the professional communicator, all news channels are challenges. It’s hard to “get out in front” of a story for a client when you are being forced to react to every little twist and turn displayed on TV screens across the nation, if not the world. It’s also hard to find airtime (literally and figuratively) for your client when you’re competing with stories of lesser news value but greater production (i.e. visual or “cute” content) values.

On the other hand, all news channels offer an increased opportunity to get messages across. When they broadcast live events, such as speeches or news conferences, a point of view can be communicated directly to many more people than those physically in attendance. They are the perfect megaphone, giving communications professionals an unrivaled outlet to position clients and manage messaging in real time.

One danger with all news, all the time is that the appearance or discourse of any one client (be it a politician or corporate official or activist from any worthy organization) merges in viewers’ minds into those of all the others. A trickle of insight joins a flood of words and images. We all drown.

Solutions? It’s not easy, but perhaps we can make an effort to not rely entirely on all news channels for our information. To keep the content of all news channels in perspective, we need to read newspapers, magazines, or web blogs. Listen to longer form radio/TV news or documentaries. Seek deeper analyses of current events, i.e. via academic or civil society outlets. Better yet, discuss the news with family, friends, and colleagues.

In other words, fight back against the dictatorship of the urgent. Take a deep breath, reflect, then decide what’s really important in news and current affairs.



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