When I first joined a newspaper in 2005, one question that was often asked by friends and relatives (albeit relatives more than friends) was how newspaper editors make sure that every day they have the right amount of news to fill up all the space and not leave anything blank.
I did not know what to say the first few times when this was asked. It took me some time to realise that what was basically being asked was what happens on a day when there isn't enough news. How do newspaper editors fill up pages on such days? This question came from the fact that no newspaper has ever carried a blank space saying 'this space is blank because we ran short of news today'. Or why just a newspaper? No other form of media reporting news operates like this.
Basically, the answer to this question is that there is never really a shortage of news - at least not in a country like India. Yes, there are what we call news-light days, but they are few and far between. On such days, newspapers either cut down on the number of pages or tend to carry more interviews, features, bigger pictures and so on. Then there is always the possibility to rewrite an old piece of news, plonk in a quote or two from so-called experts and pass it off as a piece of analysis.
The bigger and the more interesting point here is that a newspaper reader never reads what the news of the day is. What he reads is basically what the newspaper editors think is the news of the day. And I am not talking about biases that editors tend to have for a particular political party, a particular political leader or the need to go soft on a business magnate because he is a big advertiser. What I am talking about is the way general everyday news gets picked up and published in a newspaper.
One simple factor that editors keep in mind while deciding on what news reports to publish is if it bleeds, it leads. Alain de Botton explains this beautifully in his must-read book The News: A User's Manual, "The more cheerful side of the coin never makes it into the news... In any nation at any given point there is a welter of conflicting evidence about what is going on in the land. There will be several paedophiliac murderers at work, but there will also be tens of millions who don't favour abusing and bludgeoning children to death. Some people will be drawn to murdering partners who have been unfaithful with meat cleaver but the majority will tearfully and angrily muddle along. There will be some depressed residents who have been worn down by economic hardships, but they will have their opposites in many others who remain resilient in the face of daunting odds."
The point is that you are more likely to read the former kind of news in a newspaper than the latter. Or as I said, if it bleeds, it leads. As de Botton puts it, "The news badly needs its audience to feel agitated, frightened and bothered a lot of the time... The presumption is that without the dark realism of the news, the nation might lapse back into dangerous tendency to gloss over its problems and feel foolishly content with itself."
And this will happen only if there is more negative news in the newspaper. Also, what is not negative just doesn't feel like news. Take the case of a car accident which leads to piling up of cars and trucks on a highway. This makes for news. But the fact of the matter is that many cars and trucks safely drove across many other highways during the course of the same day. But that is clearly not news, though it does help us see the bigger picture in the right context.
Or take the case of rioters who loot by breaking down shop windows and running away with whatever they can find. While this makes for news, what does not make for news is the fact that the major section of the population isn't doing this and is perhaps simply watching the rioters on television.
Or take the case of airplane crashes. Any airplane crash in any part of the world makes for news in another part of the world. This leads to the belief in many minds that air travel is unsafe. Nevertheless, whenever there is an air crash, no newspaper reports that thousands of flights landed safely at airports all over the world on the same day. But even one widely reported airplane crash makes people feel unsafe about air travel.
So, what newspapers and media cover as news and the way they cover it ultimately has an impact on the thinking of people and how they see the world at large. As de Botton writes, "This power is so significant because the stories the news deploys end up having such a self-determining effect. If we are regularly told that many of our countrymen are crazed and violent, we will be filled with fear and distrust every time we go outside. If we receive subtle messages that money and status matter above all, we will feel humiliated by an ordinary life. If it's implied that all politicians lie, we'll quietly put our idealism and innocence aside and mock every one of their plans and pronouncements. And if we're told that the economy is the most important indicator of fulfilment and that it will be a disaster for a decade at least, we will be unable to face reality with confidence ever again."
All this is something worth thinking about. Hence, the next time you pick up a newspaper to read it, do remember that news is only one set of stories about what is happening out there. No more. No less.