Self-isolation has convinced me to pay for reliable media. I can finally hear myself think again.
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation intensifies, online hysteria has plunged social media into a deeper state of fear and anger, luring users further into its frenzied lair of endless breaking news and noise. Meanwhile in Madrid, self-isolation has allowed me to re-discover the importance of quality, reliable media.
It’s all noise and it’s never ending; even on slow news days, the breaking news never stops, the shocking videos from around the world continue to invade our timelines and the decibels continue to rise.
Google, Twitter and Facebook know no time-zones; there are no rest days or siestas as social media’s grip on the neck of reputable news sources tightens by the day. We now have very little control over the information we are spoon-fed.
For every insightful, well-researched and well-written piece, be it on politics, sport or economics, there’s fifty other pieces of content jumping up and down on your timeline, screaming for your attention, and quality tends to get washed away in the flood.
I now often find myself envying my technologically-inept father who lives his life with the news on the TV, his daily newspaper and an old-school Nokia phone, oblivious to digital world, free from it all.
The importance of reliable news
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of reliable, unbiased information has never been greater.
Factual information is vital to quell the fear that social media has been able to spread faster than the virus itself. But even that won’t be enough — a change in our mindset as a society is needed when it comes to information.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being confined in my home in Madrid for over three weeks is the importance of blocking out the online anger and sensationalism and people arguing about the measures taken by governments during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the age of he who tweets loudest gets the most attention, the lockdown has allowed me to re-appreciate the value of reading a newspaper or magazine or premium online content away from the incessant noise of the internet.
We need to have a space to breathe, to digest the information that we choose to read, to be able to form our own opinion without a tidal wave of angry comments and personal insults.
The pursuit of clicks and likes
If we take sport as an example, very often it’s the pieces about potential transfers or rumoured trades and video clips of deranged fans that earn the most likes and shares and interactions. This type of content is high volume and low value and is cheap and easy fuel to keep the social media engine running at full steam.
Politicians are increasingly turning to social media simply because it is such an incredibly effective tool. The Washington Post reported that Mike Bloomberg spent $50m alone on digital media advertising in his short-lived participation in the Democratic presidential candidate race.
Social media gives the likes of Donald Trump direct, unfiltered access to millions of devices across the world in an instant, often transmitting false and unfounded information without any fear of repercussion.
It’s a terribly regulated, yet incredibly influential platform used to fan the flames of racism, bigotry, class and political divide. These echo chambers serve to deepen prejudice and drive us apart.
Print has been dying a fast death but that shouldn’t mean the silencing of those who consistently strive to give us the truth.
Paying for quality
Some of the reporting during the coronavirus pandemic has merely served to whip up a frenzy and send people cramming into supermarkets like extras from The Walking Dead. That sort of scaremongering is not journalism and it’s not helpful to anyone, bar the click-counters behind the screens.
We are living through an unprecedented global pandemic, and the need for the cold, unflinching truth has never been greater, even if the news is terribly distressing.
However, even the most reputable websites do all they can to boost their click through rates, that’s now just a sad fact of our data-driven lives.
Many newspapers now have their content behind online paywalls in an ad-free environment and this can be equally rewarding for those who prefer to consume the news on their smart devices.
It might not be the most sustainable thing in the world for our planet but there’s something soothing about reading a newspaper report or magazine opinion piece.
Once you reach that final full stop, that’s it; there is no nit picking from someone with too much time on their hands at the end of the page or a comments section rammed with vile abuse from those souls looking for somewhere to release their own unhappiness.
It’s just you and your thoughts and a silence where you can create your own opinion safe in the knowledge that the content in front of you is as accurate and reliable as it can be.
We are in the middle of a critical humanitarian crisis which could have an economic impact on a scale never before seen in the world. This is a time for facts, transparency, accountability and real leadership, and this is where the two biggest global powers, the United States and China have failed.
Closer to home, factual reporting is needed to keep us informed about the current state of Europe, which looks increasingly frail by the day, as the divide between the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) and Germany and Holland grows wider.
There’s very little good news right now but we deserve to know the truth.
Right now, going to the my local newspaper kiosk here in Madrid may be a convenient excuse to leave the confines of my small apartment (kiosks have been deemed by the Spanish Government as an essential service) but I have found solace and peace in the humble paper publication.
There are no clickbait headlines in ALL CAPS vying for my deteriorating levels of attention. When I pick up open the front page of Sunday’s El País, it has the same effect as switching flight mode on in our phones.
A newspaper is a snapshot of a moment in time and once in your hand, its content cannot be changed or erased: there are no viral videos or minute by minute updates or subconscious refreshing of your timeline.
In his excellent book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig says, “We can’t live every life. We can’t watch every film or read every book…Rather than be blocked by it, we need to edit the choice in front of us. We need to find out what is good for us and leave the rest.”
These sentiments are all the more important at a time when the shelf life of news stories is now hours. Many people, myself included, have the fear of missing out when not online, but eventually you find yourself chasing your tail. At what point do we say enough is enough?
Social media addiction is now an enormous problem. In order to tackle any addiction one must first acknowledge it and it feels like, as a society, we are a long way off even this first step.
This is one of the few problems we face where we cannot ask our parents or elders for advice.
The death of print
The Guardian report that National print newspaper sales have fallen by as much as 30% since the start of the government-ordered coronavirus lockdown.
According to Statista, in 2005 UK households purchased approximately 7.2 billion British pounds worth of newspapers, almost 4 billion pounds more than in 2018.
The Guardian’s Emily Bell says, “The financial health of journalism has been deteriorating in such an acute way that every spit and cough emanating from its institutions is anxiously pored over to ascertain whether it’s a death rattle or a sign of miraculous recovery.”
The effect of social media on print has been tremendous: people now want to consume news in nibble-sized portions, through short videos and catchy soundbites. The masses no longer have time or a desire to read in-depth pieces and this has forced the news industry to adapt, opting for cutbacks and clickbait. It’s a vicious circle.
Where do we go from here?
I may not be interested in The Guardian Weekly’s recipe of Bkeila, potato and butter bean stew, as appetizing as it sounds, but I am intrigued by “How China got to grips with the outbreaks” (despite the dubious numbers released in Beijing) and the various angles of their new “This is Europe” series, and I can read in peace without mentions or replies appearing in my line of vision.
There is a way to stay informed, entertained and to learn while reducing exposure to the anxiety-inducing chaos which emanates from the scrolling and trolling world that has become social media.
I hope when normality resumes that others will have appreciated the importance of quality journalism in our lives — be it newspapers, magazines, podcasts — and that we need to support the people who provide us with the truth, something which has sadly lost a lot of importance in recent years.
By supporting journalism, we can take back control of the media we consume.