Fri, Jul 29, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The year of the bad news overload

Revolutions, earthquakes, financial meltdowns, political scandals, famines and killings — the shattering headlines just keep coming this year. Is there a way we could find time to make sense of the information overload?

By Zoe Williams  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

They always say too much disaster has the effect of inoculating the audience, so that we don’t care. But there is a level above that, of so many disasters that you go beyond the inoculation effect, into the Armageddon effect (or, as [satirical UK magazine] Private Eye had it, when they captioned George Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, “Armageddonouttahere.”)

Whatever the news has been of 2011, one thing always strikes me: This story, the alleged homicidal hospital worker, or the imminent implosion of Greece, or the famine in the horn of Africa, any one of these would normally have been enough to hold the front pages for days, even weeks: were it not for that story, the Murdoch affair, the imminent collapse of Italy, the Norwegian massacre, the American debt ceiling. There is such an abundance of news that it has torpedoed the news agenda. How do you make an agenda, when everything is as important as everything else? There is just too much news. It’s the kind of news environment that makes conspiracy theorists say: “These things are all connected.”

There is also a sense of headspin, of being unable to digest one tragedy before another happens. It’s compounded by Twitter, as almost everything always is: The modern business of half-knowing meant that the news of Amy Winehouse’s death was on Twitter before it was publicly announced, of course. The Facebook profile of a British allegedly homicidal nurse would normally have been picked over for clues all week. But they’re superseded so fast that you never get time for that half-knowledge to turn into full knowledge before the next thing happens. The effect is a news twilight, where you can’t even be sure what has been confirmed and what hasn’t.

But to return to that urge to connect, the urge to understand: Even for non-conspiracy theorists, that is a legitimate aim. When huge events tumble up on one another, it is human to look for a link. This is easier with natural disasters than it is with sudden decapitations of the high command, so, to start in New Zealand: The Christchurch earthquake in February would, in a normal year, have taken up news coverage on a scale of the Australian fires of 2009; there would have been eyewitness accounts pouring out, the whole disaster would have been broken down to individual narratives with either an especially tragic or ironic twist. I can remember specific stories about those fires, families who died in cars, brave individuals who fought off flames with a spade. I can’t remember anything at all about Christchurch, since less than three weeks later, the Japanese suffered their greatest, costliest disaster since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tornadoes that hit Arkansas and Ontario in April would normally — having killed 45 people — have been quite a big story, but were obliterated by the destruction that had already happened. In that ruminative period that usually follows a significant event, people were batting around the theory that one earthquake will predispose the Earth to suffer another; otherwise, the coincidence of New Zealand, then Japan, then Japan again a few days later (not to mention New Zealand again in June), just seemed too great. In fact, the intricacies of new tectonic theory were totally wiped out by the threat to the Japanese nuclear power plants, which themselves — and this is surprising, given that the story is far from over — lost coverage to the Arab spring.

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