“Junkie” would be an exaggeration, but I probably think more about media than most – a result of spending much of my life immersed as a consumer, writer, listener, talker. An early and compulsive reader, by elementary school, my parents’ L.A. Times complemented my Eggo waffles and Frosted Flakes on the daily. Drawn in by the comics, I also absorbed the Opinion columns, the Entertainment sections. Similarly I loved radio, a lifeline to places larger and better than the physical one I resided in. No wonder I drifted into journalism in college. I wanted to be one of those people telling the stories, building the bridges between the collective world and the individual experience.
Fortunately, I have a couple friends who not only indulge my fascination, but share it – always good to have those people willing to follow you down the same roads. Sometimes we talk about how media fails, sometimes share links illustrating when it succeeds. We share a belief that how issues and events are covered matters, that how stories are told make a difference, but – and this is important – we don’t always agree on which stories are done justice or need to be done at all. (They may be willing to accompany me down the path, but will still argue about which turn to take.)
A recent such debate got me thinking about what I look for and why.
As a reader I can’t discard my identity as a writer. That translates into, for me, style mattering as much as content; I seek out writing that is a pleasure to digest. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to relate to my life; good writing can make anything fascinating.
Jon Ronson‘s work is a great example of this.
Another example – I recently picked up a New Yorker “True Crime” compilation despite having no prurient or professional interest in crime candy. One of the stories in there about a New York detective solving a cold case decades after the murders was particularly great, gripping. Like a movie that sucks you in – and like the best movies, the best writing will take you elsewhere for a moment, expand you, resonate in unexpected ways. I love that. I kind of live for it.
But of course I’m also concerned about what affects me personally (environmental crises, elections, neighborhood crime, road closures, social opportunities, etc.) and what’s happening in the greater worlds through which I move (toxic algae blooms, homelessness, corruption, missing red pandas, etc.). I want that stuff to be well-reported – but even poorly reported is better than not at all… maybe…
But my interest in all the above also wavers depending on the specific issue and how close it is to me. I care greatly about what’s happening with our schools and rivers, not so much about yet another hash lab bust – unless the people busted are folks I know, but I’m not one of those people gleefully scanning arrest reports to point and laugh, and the prevalence of “those people” saddens me as does the pleasure taken in catering to them.
Which leads me to, if you’ve ever stepped back from news consumption, you’ve realized how little most news truly affects your day-to-day life. (Hence my “maybe” above regarding bad reporting being better than none.) It seems so important when you’re immersed in it, but try quitting the news for a month and most likely, the consequences will be minimal. (On a purely practical level, the Journal’s “Table Talk” is more likely to affect my life than the dozens of local news stories being produced every week.) In fact, the argument for minimizing exposure is strong, with some studies suggesting that “the news is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”
So then we’re back to Why bother?, and for me, the most compelling reason remains that what I’m devoting a chunk of time to is worthwhile – so much to do and life is short! – which demands smart writing or at least well-written enough that I’m not compelled to fling something out the window because to reading it hurts.
I may be choosier than the average consumer.