In the middle of a raging pandemic, one of our most crucial tools for survival began to lose its power: the news. People everywhere began to question the news media and started to consult other, often conspiratorial, sources instead. Frustrated with this development, and stuck in lockdown, former Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger sat down to write this book.
“News and How to Use It” is Alan Rusbridger’s determined attempt at restoring the people’s trust in the news. Essentially, the author has taken ‘news’ and ‘journalism’, chopped up their essential elements into bite-size pieces, and organized them alphabetically. The result is a clever A-Z guide: a collection of short and witty essays that explain how the news media work and, in doing so, hopefully convince the reader of the news’s genuine desire to inform the public.
Before the book was published it already received a handful of positive reviews from newspapers. Julian Glover from the Evening Standard called it “smart, relevant, and punchy,” and Allan Massie from The Scotsman described it as “fascinating and important.” The latter also rightly pointed out the author’s concentration on Anglo-American news media. I agree but would add that this is understandable since Rusbridger has spent his journalism years engaging almost exclusively with the US and UK press. His impressive industry knowledge largely makes up for the lack of international diversity and gives the book credibility.
Although the book is intended for both news industry insiders and outsiders, I fear that the regular reader might sometimes be confused due to the academic writing style and the frequent use of ‘journalese’ jargon. For example, I doubt that your average Joe will understand the term ‘epistemic crisis’, even after reading the paragraph describing this phenomenon. Nor will the 20-year-old plain Jane understand all of the references made about news and journalism events in the 1980s and 1990s.
However, this is not a book meant to be read end-to-end. According to John Naughton’s review for The Guardian, it’s “one to be dipped into as time and curiosity permits.” Thus, if you use the book accordingly, it gains a much wider appeal. Your conspiracy-loving relative who is always on Facebook, for instance, will not be tempted to change their ways anytime soon – but even they might learn a thing or two from flipping open this book every once in a while.
“Your conspiracy-loving relative who is always on Facebook will not be tempted to change their ways anytime soon – but even they might learn a thing or two from flipping open this book every once in a while.”
Some particular sections which are exceptionally clear and well written include ‘Climate Change’, ‘Science’ and ‘Trust’ – coincidentally the three intertwined concepts that lack support in today’s day and age. For each of them, Rusbridger explains why they are so crucial for understanding our society and for overcoming the current pandemic (and infodemic). He does so by listing a couple of questions readers might ask about publications they encounter and answers them calmly and accurately, using lots of examples and case studies. When it comes to ‘Science’, for example, he gives step-by-step instructions on how to double check the original source upon which a claim related to climate change or COVID-19 is based. By being so transparent about a journalist’s writing and editing process, the reader, hopefully, gains more trust in the news media.
On top of being informative, this book has a (hidden) sense of humor that makes the attentive reader chuckle every so often. The definition of ‘Listicicle’, for instance, is given using a list, while an explanation about brevity is not particularly concise. The author is also not afraid of showing his bitterness about certain issues, such as the topic of influencers which includes the phrase: “Cue disdain from hardnosed reporter.”
The overall message of the book is simple: good journalism does not work as a propaganda machine for a (corrupt) government. It does the opposite: good journalism is there to hold authority to account. But in an age of information overload and democratic decay there is no longer a single truth. Instead, there are various versions floating around waiting to be manipulated and misused by an ill-intentioned government or properly dissected and revealed by hardworking journalists. A fast-changing media world and a pandemic have not made the job of the latter any easier. To make properly researched news more accessible, we need to acknowledge and defend the work of journalists again. Yet, as Rusbridger points out, this is perhaps the greatest irony of all: right when the British government recognized journalists as essential workers and vowed to protect them, the industry looked more fragile than ever before.
Rusbridger does remain hopeful. In his introduction he wrote: “The best of journalism will thrive. Maybe we needed a pandemic to wake us up to its importance.” I wish we didn’t, but since we’re here I think this book (despite some of its flaws) will be instrumental in spreading the message about the significance of journalism.