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The News: A User’s Manual

Alain de Botton



It doesn’t come with any instructions, because it's meant to be the most normal, easy, obvious and unremarkable activity in the world, like breathing or blinking.

After an interval, usually no longer than a night (and often far less; if we're feeling particularly restless, we might only man­age ten or fifteen minutes), we interrupt whatever we are doing in order to check the news. We put our lives on hold in the expecta­tion of receiving yet another dose of critical information about all the most significant achievements, catastrophes, crimes, epidemics and romantic complications to have befallen mankind anywhere around the planet since we last had a look.

What follows is an exercise in trying to make this ubiquitous and familiar habit seem a lot weirder and rather more hazardous than it does at present.


The news is committed to laying before us whatever is supposed to be most unusual and important in the world: a snowfall in the tropics; a love child for the president; a set of conjoined twins. Yet for all its determined pursuit of the anomalous, the one thing the news skilfully avoids training its eye on is itself, and the predomi­nant position it has achieved in our lives. 'Half of Humanity Daily Spellbound by the News' is a headline we are never likely to see from organizations otherwise devoted to the remarkable and the noteworthy, the corrupt and the shocking.

Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority. In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths. Dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision: matins have been transubstantiated into the breakfast bulletin, vespers into the evening report. But the news doesn't just follow a quasi-religious timetable. It also demands that we approach it with some of the same deferential expecta­tions we would once have harboured of the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.

The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities.


From an early age, we are educated to appreciate the power of images and words. We are led to museums and solemnly informed that certain pictures by long-dead artists could transform our per­spectives. We are introduced to poems and stories that might change our lives.

Yet, oddly, people seldom attempt to educate us about the words and images proffered to us every hour by the news. It is deemed more important for us to know how to make sense of the plot of Othello than how to decode the front page of the New York Post. We are more likely to hear about the significance of Matisse's use of colour than to be taken through the effects of the celebrity photo section of the Daily Mail. We aren't encouraged to consider what might happen to our outlooks after immersion in Bild or OK! magazine, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the Hokkaido Shimbun, the Tehran Times or the Sun. We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influ­ence our sense of reality and to mould the state of what we might as well — with no supernatural associations - call our souls.

For all their talk of education, modern societies neglect to examine by far the most influential means by which their popula­tions are educated. Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influ­ence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher. It is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our own walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality. As revolutionaries well •know, if you want to change the mentality of a country, you don't head to the art gallery, the department of education or the homes of famous novelists; you drive the tanks straight to the nerve centre of the body politic, the news HQ.