Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Whenever I watch or listen to a news broadcast on TV or radio, I often bristle at the litany of carnage on the road, shoot-ups in America, domestic violence, massacres, murders, knife attacks, disasters and assorted catastrophes. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered why the presenter doesn’t come right out and say it: “Here is the bad news.”
The truth is that, much of the time, bad news is the news. These are stories about exceptions; about things that are not typical of us. That’s what makes them news (“If it bleeds, it leads,” runs the old journos’ maxim).
A man lies injured on a city pavement and people pass by without offering any aid, or even enquiring whether he is okay. That’s news, because that’s not what we normally do when someone is distressed.
An elderly couple die in their suburban home, undetected, for days or even weeks. Finally, someone raises the alarm and the police are called. In one such case last year, the attending police were disturbed not only by what they found but also by the apparent ignorance or indifference of the neighbours to what had occurred. (The husband had died of a heart attack. He was the carer for his blind wife, who had starved to death.) That’s news, because that’s a dramatic example of how neighbourhoods don’t normally work.
There’s an outbreak of abuse, or even violence, directed against a member of a religious minority. Or there’s some simmering ethnic tension that flares briefly into open hostility. That’s news, because it’s so unlike us.
Australians can justly claim that we are world champions at creating a harmonious society out of extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity—we have come here from about 200 different birthplaces around the world. Today, about one-third of our population was born overseas: in Sydney, it’s 43 percent of the population. Even when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788, about 60 nationalities were represented in the crew and passengers and, of course, they landed on a continent where between 300 and 400 Indigenous nations were co-existing. You could say multiculturalism is in our DNA.
That’s why racial violence or ethnic tension makes the news when it happens: it’s so unusual for us.
Last year, I was walking from Sydney University towards Central railway station when I came across a young student sitting on a stone wall beside an older man, helping him tune his battered guitar. Now, there’s nothing uniquely Australian about a young person helping an old person out of a spot of bother. There’s nothing uniquely Australian about unlikely connections being made via music. What made this seem like an Australian moment was the nature of the divides being so effortlessly bridged by these two: generational, educational and ethnic. The old man was Aboriginal and the young student was Chinese.
That wouldn’t make the news because it’s not an exceptional story, just as we don’t expect to hear on the news about fine weather, harmonious politics (well, perhaps that would be news), or the fact that things have been working pretty well for the past 24 hours.
No, the news is destined to be mostly bad because—here’s the really good news—people generally behave well, perform acts of kindness to strangers, help out those in distress and pay conscientious attention to the wellbeing of partners, children, friends and neighbours.
So how about this for a New Year’s resolution: If you’re feeling anxious or blue, don’t watch the news. Get outside and encounter life the way is really is for most of us, most of the time.