Amer­i­can news is about to self-iso­late for three months. It shouldn’t

The Dundalk Eagle - - NEWS - BY CHRISTO­PHER BRENNAN

As July melts into Au­gust, the in­creas­ing trickle of ar­ti­cles about the U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign will be­come a flood, threat­en­ing to wipe away an en­tire world of sto­ries that could keep Amer­i­cans in­formed.

The fo­cus of the U.S. for the next three months is likely to be al­most en­tirely do­mes­tic, as Pres­i­dent Trump and Joe Bi­den com­pete to put out their nar­ra­tives on the coro­n­avirus, protests, the econ­omy, and the last four years.

But set­tling in for the tra­di­tional red vs. blue horse race to­wards the White House, as well as the Se­nate, is nar­row-sighted and risks miss­ing out on the rest of the world as it goes through one of its most im­por­tant mo­ments in our life­times.

The type of news we are get­ting

The sys­tems that many Amer­i­cans use to re­ceive news in the 21st cen­tury are set up for a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Sound­bites on ca­ble TV and a lack of depth on­line do not work very well for ex­plain­ing the nu­ances of sci­en­tific re­search and how to re­act to COVID, but are a great fit for mi­cro-up­dates from the lat­est polls or out­ra­geous tweets.

What­ever nat­u­ral ten­den­cies there were to­wards horse race cover­age be­fore have found a will­ing part­ner in so­cial me­dia, where re­search from Face­book it­self has shown that the high­est pro­por­tions of hard news ar­ti­cles are shared by those at the edges of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum root­ing on their team. For more up to date data, you can also check out Kevin Roose’s Twit­ter feed set up to highlight the most shared ar­ti­cles each day.

Be­yond the peo­ple do­ing the shar­ing, there are also the plat­forms them­selves. A stun­ning Wall Street Jour­nal re­port from this spring de­tailed how ex­ec­u­tives at Face­book chose not to make the site less di­vi­sive in part be­cause it would have come at the cost of en­gage­ment. Di­vi­sion and out­rage drive en­gage­ment, and what could be more di­vi­sive than Amer­i­can na­tional elec­tions that al­most al­ways split around 50–50? What could pos­si­bly drive more en­gage­ment than feed­ing a cer­tain set of junkies, alone with their screens, a con­stant IV of con­tent that pits the bright, beau­ti­ful fu­ture of their can­di­date win­ning ver­sus the cer­tain dooms­day de­sired by the 60 mil­lion who voted for the wrong side last time?

While not the sole cause, this sort of me­dia en­vi­ron­ment is a con­trib­u­tor to the fact that po­lar­iza­tion is now a defin­ing fea­ture not just in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics but in Amer­i­can life. Not even the im­men­sity of coro­n­avirus and the stakes, life and death, could es­cape be­ing politi­cized.

Miss­ing out

The way that things are set up to mine en­gage­ment, and money, from emo­tion means that news that does not fit into the red vs. blue or non-Trump vs. Trump nar­ra­tives is often ne­glected. This in­cludes in­ter­est­ing, im­por­tant sto­ries hap­pen­ing in the U.S. that don’t touch on the power cen­ters of New York, L.A. and D.C where a large per­cent­age of jour­nal­ists, par­tic­u­larly dig­i­tal ones, are. But it also ap­plies to al­most all in­ter­na­tional sto­ries.

It is not news that many ma­jor out­lets in the U.S. have been clos­ing down for­eign bu­reaus for years. Some of that has been re­placed with re­porters who take on the risks of be­ing free­lancers, though they also face the pres­sure to fit what they are do­ing into the news cy­cle dom­i­nat­ing Amer­ica that day. “There’s al­ways more of a re­sponse when I have a Trump peg,” Mid­dle Eastern cor­re­spon­dent Su­lome An­der­son told CJR in 2018.

As might be ex­pected, this does not leave Amer­i­cans par­tic­u­larly well in­formed about what is hap­pen­ing in the world, which ap­pears to have been the case with coro­n­avirus. Zeyi Yang wrote an in­sight­ful piece in April about “in­for­ma­tion gaps” and the fact that ma­jor Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tions seemed to catch on to news about COVID that had been pub­lished in China weeks ear­lier, in­clud­ing when it was al­ready in English. One of the pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions of­fered by Yang is that news desks, in ad­di­tion to cov­er­ing the im­peach­ment trial, were overly fo­cused on the 2020 elec­tion then get­ting into swing.

New York Gov­er­nor An­drew Cuomo, also in April, took aim at news out­lets, the New York Times and Wall Street Jour­nal in par­tic­u­lar, for not blow­ing the “bu­gle” on the dan­gers of coro­n­avirus in China. He re­ceived a lot of flak for this be­cause there had in fact been on the ground re­port­ing by Western out­lets, par­tic­u­larly if you were look­ing be­yond just two out­lets.

But Gov. Cuomo’s me­dia cri­tique is a com­mon one, whether of coro­n­avirus or of jour­nal­ists not cov­er­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Bagh­dad with the same fer­vor that they would cover one in France. The cover­age al­most al­ways ex­ists, but most peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of “the me­dia” re­lies on what is the dom­i­nant story or two of the day, what is high­lighted on ma­jor sites, and what is shared on so­cial me­dia by their friends and all of the clever jour­nal­ists they fol­low. Re­sponse (en­gage­ment) to ar­ti­cles and events also feeds back into what edi­tors choose to spot­light, lead­ing to sit­u­a­tions where the out­sized role of Twit­ter on New York jour­nal­ism cir­cles leads to space on A1 for a story about the “can­cel cul­ture let­ter.”

Get­ting bet­ter news

So what is one to do to stay afloat in a flood of news when the sys­tems get­ting you in­for­ma­tion are of­ten­times geared to­wards some­thing other than keep­ing you in­formed?

The good news is that, even as ma­jor out­lets or your so­cial me­dia feeds be­come fo­cused solely on a tweet or whether Bi­den’s VP pick will get him two ex­tra per­cent­age points in cer­tain coun­ties in Michi­gan, there is great jour­nal­is­tic work be­ing done around the world on al­most any sub­ject you could de­sire to read. Again, if you know the right places to look.

The big legacy pa­pers and mag­a­zines do their best to cover the en­tire coun­try (and may have the un­for­tu­nate re­spon­si­bil­ity of need­ing to given the de­cline in lo­cal news) as well as the en­tire world, with in­ter­na­tional re­porters who have con­tin­ued to do good work dur­ing the pan­demic. How­ever, no mat­ter what they send back, their out­lets will be in full elec­tion mode. Get­ting real qual­ity news in the up­com­ing months prob­a­bly means go­ing be­yond the main­stream and maybe even means sub­scrib­ing to some­thing be­yond the New York Times.

Luck­ily there is a trea­sure trove of English-lan­guage sites abroad such as the South China Morn­ing Post, The Moscow Times (full dis­clo­sure: my first job out of col­lege) or The Brazil­ian Re­port, spe­cialty dig­i­tal out­lets such as Rest of World, English edi­tions of ma­jor out­lets such as El Pais or Deutsche Welle, and blog­gers in ev­ery cor­ner of the world, not to men­tion the en­tirety of the more tra­di­tional An­glo­phone me­dia out­side of the U.S., from Cape Town to Canberra to

County Cork.

There is re­ally a lot out there. Cover­age of coro­n­avirus, as well as the world’s de­vel­op­ment and dis­tri­bu­tion of a vac­cine, will press on, giv­ing Amer­i­cans an op­por­tu­nity to con­tinue com­par­ing and learn­ing from the re­sponses hap­pen­ing in other coun­tries. The pan­demic has been and will con­tinue to be some­thing with an in­ex­tri­ca­ble global di­men­sion.

Step­ping out­side the cir­cus tent of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal dis­course may even help you be more in­formed on the pres­i­den­tial race it­self. When Ukraine or China or Rus­sia in­evitably pop up as an is­sue in the cam­paign, it may be nice to have been read­ing the Kyiv Post, the Nikkei Asian Re­view or Me­duza in­stead of hav­ing knowl­edge of en­tire re­gions of the world re­fracted through the prism of US par­ti­san­ship and cul­ture war.

The year 2020 has been one for re­flect­ing on the way that a lot of our sys­tems work, where they have failed us and where we can do bet­ter. It’s also a time when Amer­i­cans, now banned from trav­el­ing to the vast ma­jor­ity of other coun­tries on Earth, can reeval­u­ate the way that they see their place in the world.

Me­dia cover­age of the in­ces­sant, swirling news cy­cles in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign may mean an end to this self-re­flec­tion, though I hope it doesn’t. Per­spec­tive has been and is there for those who want it. You may not be able to get on a flight, but you don’t have to be cut off from the world.

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