One of my quirks is my need to have rolling news radio such as BBC Five Live on in the background as I’m falling asleep and when I wake up. It’s now quite habitual so, as with most habits, it goes largely unquestioned, but while it has kept me precociously informed for well over a decade now (the first news story I can remember being covered is the NATO air strikes of Bosnia) this unabating audible addiction has its drawbacks. For although news radio probably filled the psychological and vocal void left when I was too old to be read bedtime stories, rolling news and fairy tales quite obviously share little in common. News, especially in modern times, is a constantly unfolding narrative, which bears no natural inclination to resolve itself just at the moment I drop off. Falling asleep and waking up to ever-evolving events has come to make sleep feel more like the blink of an eye than a third of any given day.
Because rolling news radio makes sleep seem a mere punctuational pit-stop in one giant ‘meta-day’ of life, I often get confused about exactly when I’ve learned of a particular news item. So it was that either late last night or early this morning I heard about an earthquake in another seemingly far-flung land on this ever-contracting planet. I don’t remember where it was, but news media operates on a series of buzzwords – ‘economy’, ‘terrorist’, ‘civil unrest’, ‘election’, ‘earthquake’ etc – which allow an easy if shallow and inaccurate understanding of what’s important in the world right now. The mention of another ‘earthquake’ set off a mental warning siren in the midst of my slumber. Because nowadays the news is being presented more and more as a narrative, I began to wonder whether the recent series of earthquakes were linked and somehow spelled the earth literally ripping at its seams. So when I properly woke up I engaged in a truly twenty-first century method of research, which is utterly lazy but surprisingly effective – I simply Googled my basic, coarsely ungrammatical sentiment: ‘why so many earthquakes’. Of the ten results, the most authoritative seemed like the only from the US Geological Survey. It reported that
Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant throughout this century and, according to our records, have actually seemed to decrease in recent years.
Nice and reassuring and, I thought, the end of the matter. But it seemed cnn.com felt the same as me this morning, as their top story when I logged on was ‘Quake frequency normal, scientists say.’ Although the article came across as well-researched, I was taken by the sixth paragraph:
“Earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant throughout this century and, according to our records, have actually seemed to decrease in recent years,” the U.S. Geological Survey, which measures and tracks earthquakes all around the world, says on its Web site.
Seeing this made me realise two things: firstly, that often what I’m thinking or worrying about is often what other people, or at least other journalists, are mulling over as well; and secondly, that perhaps their journalistic method might not be so far from my very amateur and pathetic Googling. This briefly and conceitedly gave me a greater confidence in my prospects in this career path.
Yet it did also impress on me a wider point: that both professional journalists like those on CNN and amateur news-hunters like myself are simultaneously the victims and the perpetrators of narrow-minded narrative news. I wrongfully assumed that because x number of earthquakes have occured within my field of vision this year, there must be some causal link between them. In a globalized world it is easy to present economic crises, terrorist campaigns and rising global temperatures as ‘series of unfortunate events’, a la Snickett. No one can literally predict terrorist attacks, yet each time one occurs it was ‘always to be expected’ and is immediately subsumed within the context and narrative of a terrorised age, est. September 2001. But while earthquakes undoubtedly have a cause, and may one day be accurately predicted and even planned for, they remain in some sense random, freak accidents of nature, just as someone willingly blowing themselves up on a commuter train is still a random, freak accident of society. Trends, correlations and predictions are important, but raw, unforeseeable accidents, (Machiavelli’s ‘fortuna‘; Macmillan’s ‘events‘) should be what keeps me up at night and wakes me up in the morning.