Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - April 13, 2014

Brian Gongol

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What is news?

What is news? Normally, that would sound like a question meant to fill up a fluffy hour of college-level philosophy class. But let's take three recent events, all involving the word "news", and see how it's not such a rhetorical question after all: So let's define "news" plainly: A development that materially changes the status quo.

That's it. News matters because (and it's only news if) it changes what we know or expect about the world around us in some way that has some kind of substance.

Of course, "news" is delivered in cycles -- the daily newspaper, the hourly radio news update, and the nightly half-hour television newscast. And there usually isn't really enough "news" to fit the format, so we find other things mixed in with it. Specifically: Not all events are news, nor is all information news. And if we're sincere about wanting the news, then we need to be a bit discriminating about our expectations. Virtually nothing in the world of sports is "news" -- games and matches are definitely events, but until the Cubs win the World Series (thus upending a century-long status quo), not much will be news. Nothing in the world of pop culture is really "news" (trends like selfies and emoji aren't really material changes to life as we know it). There are lots of events that happen that don't change anything about our understanding of the world, and they may be worth documenting, reporting, and recording, but that doesn't mean they're news (for instance, the price of gas will rise just before Memorial Day; it always it's the status quo, not news). There will be many, many events in the stock market and in the world of business on a given day, but very few of those events are really "news". Politicians will say things, but they're very rarely things that change the status quo -- again, those things they say may qualify as information and may involve events, but they very rarely rise to the level of "news" (which is why Presidential campaign coverage is plagued by "process stories" that almost nobody likes.)

In some cases, the real news is reported substantially after the event -- as when it is revealed how the Obama campaign used novel methods of data management to its advantage in the 2012 election, or when it is realized well after massive damage has been done that Federal, state, and municipal pension programs are in disastrous shape due to decades of faulty assumptions and willfully negligent negotiations. Surely we prefer it that our news is delivered in a timely manner -- but the problem may be that we are so content to accept "events" and "information" as substitutes (some might even say "filler") that we crowd out our attention and patience for actual news.

Our misuse of news isn't going to ruin society -- at least not soon -- and it's nothing new, either. But given the amount that we use and abuse the word "news", it's high time we gave it a little more thought.

This week:

Business and Finance Think through the consequences
A Cityview story on gang problems in Des Moines (yes, Des Moines) notes the widely-acknowledged correlation between youth unemployment and gang trouble: "No kid that has a legitimate opportunity elsewhere is joining a gang". This relationship should always enter the conversation when people talk about doing anything that restricts entry into the labor force -- including raising the minimum wage. Barriers to entry mean more young people with no better alternatives, and that enhances the risk that some of them will get caught up in criminal activity. 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds with low-wage but legitimate jobs are a far better thing to have than 21-year-olds who still haven't gotten into the labor force. And the higher the barriers to entry, the worse the effects down the road, since the longer a person goes without establishing some kind of a working history (no matter how menial it may appear), the harder it becomes for them to get moving up the economic ladder.

News Chicago and the state of Illinois struggle to fix pensions
Too many promises made for too long and not enough set aside to keep them. Chicago's not alone -- this is a very widespread problem.

Computers and the Internet Are we giving up too much by giving up ICANN?
The United States has managed much of the Internet's structure with a sort of benign dictatorialism. But turning it over to the world at large? What guarantee have we that it will work?

Health Lab-grown organs are already a reality
A Lancet study says that four women in the US have had vaginal transplants from lab-grown tissue

Business and Finance How different generations can work together
Supposedly advice for family businesses, but widely applicable. Generational labels are often over-done, but there are definitely lessons to be learned across age groups.

News "A contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea"
Secretary of State Kerry tries to call out the Russian government for making a mess in Ukraine -- quite literally by fomenting insurrection. So, here's the question: Why does this all appear to be happening while the White House scrambles to patch together some kind of response? How did we get here? Why didn't we see this coming, and wasn't there something that we could have done to prevent it? Is there a systemic failure we need to address? Are there individuals who should be fired for gross incompetence? Wagging fingers at Russia now seems like a response that isn't anywhere close to getting the right outcome.

Threats and Hazards Trouble in Ukraine is far from over
Gunmen have taken over police buildings. The smart money is on Russian involvement.

Threats and Hazards Russia starts threatening Europe over Ukraine and natural gas

Threats and Hazards Russia withheld information on the Boston bombers

News China declares: We will not be contained
Saying that the Pacific is big enough for two great powers, they're certainly signaling that America's military-industrial complex will have work for plenty of years to come