Only Politics as News?

I spent half my 40 years or so in academia teaching and researching Politics. The other (second) half was spent doing the same in Communications, mainly Journalism. Scholars tend to focus on rather narrow topics for their research, and I was usually not an exception. But this “reflective memoir” offers me a chance to ask a BIG question.

Imagine an alien coming down to Earth for some “anthropological” study. Among the places it visits is academia, where it finds among the larger universities approximately 40-50 departments, each specializing in a different subject or field of life. One of these is Political Science; perhaps another is International Relations. It then opens the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual reports and discovers year after year that approximately 5% of the work force is employed in government at all levels.

After a hard day’s work, the alien sits down to read a few newspapers (print or screen). “Very strange,” it muses out loud after scanning several of them. “All these news report media seem to spend almost half their time and energy on only one field: politics. I wonder why – after all, far fewer work in politics and even fewer study the subject.”

Indeed! Open any newspaper (not counting the National Enquirer and its ilk) and that’s what you will find: politics, politics, education, politics, sports, politics, science, politics, politics, politics, technology, politics…

Why is this so? One obvious reason is that other than war – itself a continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz opined – there is no other area of life with as much “Action & Drama” as the political world. By its very nature it is based on, and suffused with, conflict. And as we are well aware, we are evolutionarily primed to “notice” human conflict as opposed to other forms of human interaction. In short, the news media are simply “playing to the crowd”.

A second reason for the dominance of political news is the influence of politics on our lives: taxes, health policy, environmental regulation, macro-economic policy, etc etc – all obviously have a significant impact on our lives. Moreover, in a democracy the elected leaders are doing what we (supposedly) (s)elected them to do for us. Political news is not just what “they are doing to/for us” but also – or rather – whether they are doing what we agreed that they would do. In short, it is a public mirror of our (un)met desires.

So it is not surprising that politics takes up more space and time on the news than any other field of human endeavor. And yet…

When one looks at what truly affects us, it turns out that a huge amount of influential goings-on aren’t in the political sphere at all. There are almost countless scientific and technological advances reported each day in professional journals and other non-“news” venues that will change our lives down the road: pharmaceuticals & health (new vaccines, drugs, and bio-tech); transportation (drones, flying cars, autonomous vehicles); economics (cyber-currency, cybercrime, online banking, telework); environment (rising sea levels, catastrophic weather, global warming, bio-extinction); and so on. Of course, these are covered by the news, but with a frequency nowhere near the impact that they (will) have on our lives. So what’s the problem?

I think that there are a few explanations. First – as Tevya the Milkman once said: “tradition”. Newspapers, as we broadly understand the term, commenced about 400 years ago; the profession of journalism started about 200 years ago (earlier than that the publisher/printer doubled as “reporter”). Back then, “politics” was just about all that was happening! Modern science was barely getting started; there were almost no macro-economics to talk about (or understand, until Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations); the lives of common folk interested no one (most couldn’t even afford to buy a newspaper); not even team sports existed to fill news space!

In that news black hole, politics – war, diplomacy, rulers’ machinations – was all there was to report on (other than announcing which ship just docked with what imports for local sale). This “tradition” then self-reproduced itself even when more non-politics did emerge in the 1900s, and continues to this day. In fact, there is a general term for the generational continuation of an original practice: “path dependence”.

The most famous example of this is the QWERTY keyboard – completely illogical, as its layout has no connection whatsoever to the frequency of letters typed or even letter contiguity in the English language. How, then, did that get started? The first typewriters had an “arm” for each letter that struck the ink ribbon on top of the blank paper. But as that early typewriter was quite primitive, if one typed too fast the arms would get stuck together – so the keyboard was designed to make typing MORE difficult (and slower)!!! By the time this physical problem was fixed on ensuing versions the secretaries had already learned “touch-typing” on that QWERTY keyboard and refused to change to a more sensible layout. So look at your advanced computer keyboard – still back in the mid-19th century!

One can add to the “tradition” of political journalism the fact that reporters and editors are like almost all other humans – they follow the herd. Indeed, one could argue that news is merely “I herd it through the grapevine”, with each journalist reporting on those matters that other reporters are covering. What about their constant quest for the “scoop”? That’s new news within the same general subject area, i.e. politics!

A second (or third, if the “herd” counts as separate) factor turns the mirror from journalists to each of us, the news consumer. Human beings are invariably “here and now” creatures. From an evolutionary standpoint (until the modern age), there were too many present obstacles and dangers to contend with; thinking about “the future” was a luxury that almost none could afford (which is why Pharaoh was so taken aback by, and taken with, Joseph’s highly unusual plan to save grain for 7-14 years hence). And on top of that, predicting the future was such an “iffy” affair that other than professional “predictors” (oracles, prophets, seers etc), no one even tried it.

Given this built-in human myopia, it is hardly surprising that journalists too would focus on the immediate present – not only because most understand the “iffiness” of future prognostication, but because their readers, listeners, and viewers just can’t get too worked up over the “future”. A perfect example: it has taken decades for journalism to really start focusing on global warming and other serious environmental issues – in large part due to the “ho-hum” response of its audience to bad things that will take place “decades from now”. When did the “environment” finally get serious public and journalistic traction? When the politicians started fighting over it!

In short, getting journalists to consistently focus on any serious or significant topic is a lost cause – unless someone (economists, scientists, pressure groups etc) can turn it into a “political issue”. This “topic myopia” is certainly short-sighted (by definition), but it’s what we – journalists and public alike – have been trained and accustomed to.

I guess by focusing most of my academic work on political science and mass communications I made the correct professional decision – which doesn’t mean that in practice, combining the two should be the be-all and end-all of our news production and consumption practices.

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