What We Talk About, And What We Don’t

The BBC gives an interesting insight into what people talk about, at least when it comes to news and current affairs of all kinds. As they say about their “Have Your Say” feature:

It is a powerful body of opinion, one larger than any focus group and one which can be viewed anywhere in the world.

It speaks volumes about people trying to make sense of the new world order post 9/11, trying to work through the relations between different religions and cultures and shed some light on what is increasingly a complex and difficult world.

The BBC’s analysis of what people read and commented on in 2006 shows that 5 of the top 10 topics were about the Middle East or relationships with the Islamic world.

(And another two topics of those top ten were reactions to the death and near-death of two celebrities, Steve Irwin and Richard Hammond.)

This comes in a week when the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious leaders have been telling us that the world musn’t ignore the issue of Middle East peace.

Ignore? All my life the world has obsessed about it. And never more so than in the last five years. But there is a world of difference between not ignoring something, and having the slightest idea of what to do that will work.

The Archbishop’s answer, of course, is to promote reconciliation and understanding and goodwill between men. Perhaps grounded in the injunction to love your enemies, and others.

And this is obviously wise and good. And just as obviously, it has been said many times before, and saying it one more time is unlikely to make any difference at all.

Loving your enemies hasn’t become popular these two thousand years. As John’s Gospel would have it: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

So if just repeating it one more time will have little effect, what will?

I don’t have the answers, I’m asking the question.

Maybe what it will take is a Gandhi, a Mandela, or a Martin Luther King to emerge in the Middle East. And that is not something any of us can make happen, except the one out there that takes that task upon themselves.

. . .

Meanwhile, notice what the world is not talking about.

As I pointed out in my discussion of terrorism, in the UK during 2006, precisely zero people were killed by terrorism. While in the same year three thousand people were killed in road accidents.

We talk about what is dramatic, new and visceral, and forget what is chronic and ongoing.

We love stories with villains and heroes, where we can get worked up in righteous indignation about the evildoers, whoever we decide they are.

And if 3,000 people died in the UK in road accidents in one year, by comparison 3,000 people die of malaria in Africa every single day, most of them children. Of course, Africa is a big place, and we need to get a sense of the numbers in terms we can relate to. In a population the size of London or New York, that would be 30-35 deaths from malaria every day, or roughly 12,000 in a year.

And that’s just a fraction of the deaths every day associated with extreme poverty.

But the world doesn’t talk a lot about that. Except when there’s a rock concert or a tsunami to bring it momentarily back into public discussion.

I don’t think it’s that the world doesn’t care – just look at the outpourings after the tsunami.

I think it’s that the world has collective attention deficit disorder.

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2 Responses to What We Talk About, And What We Don’t

  1. Belladonna says:

    We hear so much about breast cancer and AIDS – but precious little about MALARIA which kills more than either. That’s not to say that breast cancer and AIDS are not important, but I believe we get a very skewed picture of what things cause human suffering and death.

    For that matter, there are a whole lot of people in this world who still die from diarrhea – something that does not take a complex pharmaceutical regime to combat, yet largely goes ignored by the abundant of the world.

    The flip side of it all is, what about all the great, fantastic, WONDERFUL things that are going on in the world? Some newscasts give a minute or so to “human interest”, but at least here in the USA I find lead stories are more often than not catastrophes or scandal.

    If it bleeds, it leads.

    Many years ago I dated a guy who was a news director for a rock ‘n’ roll radio station. I used to be facinated by the little bits of things that came across the teletype but ended up on the cutting room floor rather than winning a coveted spot on his six minutes at the top of the hour.

    I can’t help but wonder why it is that commercial media is so intent on offering up daily doses of mayhem and fear. Are we truly more attracted to that stuff or have we just been conditioned to expect it more?

  2. torchwolf says:

    In this case, we’re getting some insight into what people are actually interested in. Because the BBC News website writes about most everything under the sun, and these stats measure what people choose to read, or care about enough to comment on.

    There must be some effect due to the prominence the BBC gives to various articles, and how frequently it writes about different topics. But this is a better measure than most of what people take an interest in, independent of what the media selects.

    Another measure for that I suppose would be what people look for with search engines, what pages they bookmark, and what they blog about.

    In a way we’re guilty of the same fixation with sensationalism when we latch on to and propogate stats about children dying of a disease. That obviously grabs the attention of any human being.

    But focussing on that has many unfortunate side-effects.

    One is that we fixate on medical interventions, rather than more fundamental issues. If the child’s parents have a decent livelihood, they’ll make sure the child is well-fed. And well-nourished children are resilient against disease.

    Another side-effect is that we do just enough to deal with the dramatic and horrific, but still leave people stuck in a nasty bind. The world’s various food programmes makes sure no-one actually dies of starvation in Ethiopia now. But we don’t do enough to set people on the path to anything like vigour, or a decent life.

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