Journalism Shepherds History, Memory


Eternal recurrence is a philosophical concept coined by 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche which relates the idea that, as explained by Rustin Cohle from “True Detective,” “time is a flat circle.” The events that take place throughout the universe have happened before and will happen again an infinite number of times, because the progression of time is circular rather than linear.

A more toned-down version of this concept is historical recurrence, the idea that throughout history similar events have occurred and will continue to occur. Unlike eternal recurrence, historical recurrence is a phenomenon that can be observed. What do Emperor Bonaparte’s campaign in 1812 and Adolf Hitler’s in 1941 have in common? They both tried to invade Russia, and the Russian Winter caused both invasions to fail. Mark Twain wrote that “it is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” He could be right, but I will nonetheless hazard to try.

To prevent historical recurrence, we need not venture back to the evolution of mankind, or any point in history for that matter. Rather, we must examine the reporting of current events, because the events that are reported today will be the foundation of history to come. Are as many current events being reported as possible? The answer is a flat-out no, because news reporting is tainted by the process of selection.

Selection is a broad term. I utilized the process of selection in constructing the sentence that you are reading. Instead of saying “constructing” I could have used a more elementary word like “writing,” but I wanted to appear less unsophisticated than I truly am. Everybody is selective about everything that they say. Reporting the news is certainly no exception. Not to mention the fact that profit motive effectively controls news organizations, and one other aspect dominates the selection process for news stories above all: popular demand.

There is a much higher demand for negative press than positive press. Negative press covers things like natural disasters, acts of prejudice and hate, people exploiting the poor, people of power behaving incompetently and politicians lining their pockets with corporate donations. Bad behavior gets more publicity than good behavior, disaster more than development. Go to any website claiming to report current events; open any newspaper.

Readership is an inseparable determinant of a news organization’s success. Newspapers and other mediums are incentivized to report on things that will garner the most attention from the public, and studies have shown that the public prefers glass-half-empty news stories. One such study took place at McGill University in Canada, where researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka told participants that they were being studied for eye-tracking. Participants were first asked to select news stories from a website and read them in front of a camera for “baseline eye-tracking measures.” Next, the participants watched a short video, which they were tricked to believe was the main part of the experiment. Afterwards, they answered questions about the news stories that they preferred.

What Trussler and Soroka found was that people most frequently selected news articles dealing with corruption, setbacks and hypocrisy rather than more positive articles. Yet when the researchers asked the participants what sort of news they preferred to read, most said positive news and oddly enough complained that news media was too negative.

Thus, the general public is afflicted with ignorance. Individual members of the public may be bright or dimwitted, but the public at large is an ignorant mechanism of considerable proportions. How could a public unaware of its addiction to tragedy porn be characterized as anything else?

Yet it is the newsmaker, not the newsreader, who must be held accountable. Selection as catering to popular demand places the quality of news on a downward trajectory. News organizations could be educating the public with as clear a picture of reality as can be taken.

Instead, they prioritize entertainment over information in designing their stories. What happens to all of the potential stories that go unreported every day for being relatively less entertaining than the stories that are selected? Are these stories unworthy of our attention

We cannot know. By tossing certain stories in favor of more entertaining stories, we lose sight of what news reporting stands for at its core: discovery of the truth. Worse yet, we forget information before we even learn it.

It is therefore imperative that the current process of selection be eliminated. Transitioning to the online world is the first step that will lay the foundation for the elimination of selection, and this step is already in the works. Websites do not have page limits, which makes selection for the sake of space unnecessary. The second step is for every news organization to limit its scope and establish a niche. We need a website that churns out articles on farm subsidies on a daily basis. We need another keeping us continually updated on the exploitation of employees by McDonald’s. We need a website designed specifically to continue reporting the stories that make the headlines and then vanish. If we take these two steps, we will maximize our potential to report current events, and the historians of tomorrow will have ample information at their disposal. This is my stab at solving the irritating phenomenon of historical recurrence.

Assistant Editorials Editor Erik Alexander is a College junior from Alpharetta, Georgia.