Being a well-informed world citizen is simple. Newspapers, radio, rolling 24-hour news channels, live twitter feeds and websites are all just a tiny part of the sprawling international offering that makes news consumption effortless.
It is also extremely important. Without a good grounding in news and current affairs we become isolated, whether on a local, national or international scale. And if we isolate ourselves from other cultures we lose the ability to empathise with their problems, resolve conflicts or even simply understand the world around us.
Keeping ourselves informed of new developments is also empowering; it gives us the tools and knowledge to help us change things that we believe are fundamentally wrong. After all, how can you successfully oppose something if you do not know that it is happening or the context surrounding it?
So, we ask ourselves, how is it, that in this massive global network of information it can feel like we know less than ever before? Just this week reports came in of mass protests in Bulgaria, with thousands of people on the streets in the cities of Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas in anger at an allegedly undemocratic government.
But it is a story that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media – you will not find this news on your Sky TV sets or BBC twitter feed. It is also a story that is just one of countless others, not worth even a passing mention on the inside page of your quality broadsheet. How many people have heard of the Icelandic protests of the early 2000s that led to country’s financial reform for example? Or what of the horrific rape of countless young men and women in the US army?
From a few scattered examples alone it is clear that there is an inherent bias in the way we report the world, but why? Is it, as some suggest, a conspiracy perpetuated by our governments to keep us from rioting against the traditional power norms? Perhaps we should be looking a little closer to home.
In 1965 two media researchers, Johan Galtung and Marie Ruge, attempted to discover exactly what makes ‘news’. After detailed analysis of scores of international news stories they came up with a list of things all the stories had in common; what they called news values. Ranging from continuity to meaningfulness, their final list of 12 ingredients to a “good news story” still says a lot about our society’s effect on the media.
While many other researchers have suggested additions or modifications to Galtung and Ruge’s initial points over the past five decades, they still all broadly fit within three categories; audience identification, pragmatics of media coverage and impact. Note the first grouping in particular. Put simply, if a story does not conform to what an audience relates to, media organisations will not cover it.
In the society of today we are only really interested in ourselves; stories from far-flung destinations do not sell and neither do those from countries with vast cultural differences. If the audience does not see how the story is relevant to them, it just will not work. Whatever our high minded expectations of the press to hold power to account, media organisations still need to pay the bills and ultimately exist to make money. Papers, broadcasters and online organisations alike select the stories their audiences are interested in reading – which is not necessarily the same as the ones they should be reading.
And what of the internet, heralded as the arrival of infinite knowledge for all? Surely we now know more than we ever did before? Not so, argues Professor James Curran of Goldsmiths. The internet may well be filled with limitless ideas and information, but that does not mean the traditional giants do not hold the most sway. In the UK, for example, the top ten list of most visited news websites does not contain any surprises with the BBC, MailOnline and the Guardian heading up the top.
Perhaps most poignantly, however, the internet gives us an opportunity to ignore what we do not want to see. Don’t want to read about the protests in Bulgaria? No worries, there are thousands of cat videos waiting for you instead.