Tuesday, August 11, 2009

First With The News! Especially The Bad News! (May Contain Italics)

I've written before about how my then-boss was keen to be the first to tell us about the "50 planes that were unaccounted for" on 11 September 2001, and I noted then that it wasn't true; I was interested, then, on holiday, to note how many time people seemed keen to be the first ones to share bad news, whether or not it turned out to be accurate.

An example was almost directly before we got onto the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi; the train station was pretty dirty and smelly, and the trains passing through looked packed with people (and don't forget I'm used to the London Underground, which as we all know is often the worst transport system in the world*), and it was oppressively humid, when one of our party confidently stated that she'd been on the overnight sleeper before, and it was like a tin sweatbox on wheels. A groan went around the group, and even though another of our number said she'd been on the overnighter a couple of years ago and it hadn't been that bad, it was as if the miserable possibility was inherently more plausible. It took root almost instantly... and was pretty quickly proven wrong.

Similarly, a couple of days before the total solar eclipse, someone from our party told us that they'd had a conversation with someone in the foyer of our hotel, and that he'd said the best place to view the eclipse wasn't likely to be from the banks of the Ganges river, but instead from the roof of our hotel, in the city of Varanasi. I suggested that the middle of the city might not be ideal, as there might be some glare or other visual pollution from being in a built-up area, but the idea that we shouldn't get up and go and watch the eclipse from the ghats in Varanasi seemed to seize people's imaginations quite quickly - though it quickly fell by the wayside when someone actually went up onto the roof and reported back that it wasn't so scenic - nothing against the HHI hotel, you understand, but being on a roof usually means walking round air-vents and ariel cables and the like.

I was struck, though, by how the people passing on these stories (and I use that word in its most 'fictional' meaning) seemed enormously keen to be the imparter of news - specifically, bad news. It was almost as if they had a schadenfreude-esque glee in being the first to be in the know (or, as it turned out to be, the 'don't know'), but particularly in relation to something grim. In a way, I think this is echoed in the general tone of newspaper headlines (and certainly of opinion columns) - there's a general sense of being appalled or outraged, and if someone can point out a hitherto-unknown but ultimately grim proposition, or point to something current as being a sign that the barbarians are at the gate and that society's fraying at the edges and young people nowadays no respect always on Spacebook and exams aren't proper exams anymore it's not like it was in my young days we're all doomed don't you see the end is nigh we're all going to die -

You get the idea.

I think it was Douglas Adams who noted that the only thing that travels faster than light is bad news, and it does seem that people often take a strange pleasure in sharing the grimness, even if it applies to them - misery, as the saying goes, loves company.

Whilst I'm always keen and eager to be the first to make some devastatingly insightful remark and point out something which no-one else in the room seems to have spotted, I'm increasingly becoming wary of doing so from a reflexively negative angle, because my recent (and indeed not-so-recent) experience suggests rushing to be first with the bad news can mean that one overlooks little things like facts and accuracy.

And that genuinely is cause for concern.

*Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but given that all the tubes to and from East London have, for the last year or more, been as good as switched off all weekend, every weekend, I think my sense of grievance may not be entirely misplaced.


The Factory said...

Quite right, I think those people enjoy a little moment of micro fame. But as for the accuracy aspect it was the later Walter Cronkite that said 'it's better to be right than to be first'.

John Soanes said...

Mr Cronkite's amusingly relevant to this topic, as the NY Times were in such a hurry to publish his obituary, they didn't put a premium on factual accuracy...