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What Does the Word 'News' Really Mean?


I am beginning to think that the word ‘news’ has far outlived its usefulness and should be simply dropped from the current English lexicon. Maybe it should be replaced by a word like ‘story,’ or ‘images,’ or some other word which simply describes media content in terms of what kind of technology is used to let you see or hear with your eyes or your ears.

Maybe we should go back to some kind of electronic smoke signals, which were used before we had electricity to send some kind of message over a wide space.

I just opened my browser to Google and went to the news page. The first four stories are: (1). Fox spielers like Hannity and Carlson admit that Trump was lying about election ‘fraud;’ (2). The China balloon controversy requires countries to take sides; (3). a town in Ohio ‘reflects’ on the derailment of a toxically-loaded train; (4). funeral services set for two of the shooting victims at Michigan State.

Well, at least one of the four stories, the funeral story, actually contained a fact, namely, where and when the funerals will be held. But that information was simply gleaned from announcements made by the respective funeral parlors arranging the sorrowful events. The story itself was basically built around comments made by various individuals about the loss of their two friends.

That’s news? Those statements contain any facts other than where the funerals will be held and what time mourners should show up?

And by the way, what I found really interesting about the Google news app was the absence of Donald Trump. He hasn’t had anything to say since yesterday when he reacted to Nikki Haley’s Presidential announcement by saying that as Governor, she did a lousy job.

Which happens to be nothing more than Trump stating something which isn’t remotely close to being a fact. But since when did Trump say anything which would qualify as ‘news’ if we define the word ‘news’ as telling us something based on ‘facts.’

The origin of the word ‘news’ appears to have started being used during the 14th Century as a plural for the word ‘new’ as in ‘new things.’ Which means it wasn’t supposed to be used to inform the community about old events from times in the past. Rather, it was a word that was used like the way we now use the word which describes the bulletin board which hangs next to the entrance to City Hall.

The news industry first appeared in March 1702, with the initial publication of a daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, whose owner, a woman named Elizabeth Mallet, lived in London and worked out of her home which was adjacent to a saloon.

This initiative quickly attracted competitors, both in England and the United States. The first daily paper published over here began appearing in 1784. This event also quickly provoked competition, including the first edition of The New York Post, published by Alexander Hamilton in 1801.

The beginning and spread of a news ‘industry’ reflected two things which began to occur as America and England moved into the Industrial Age. First, there had to be technologies developed which allowed for printing of large numbers of text on paper in brief periods of time. Second, and even more important, there had to be the appearance and growth of a literate population which had a basic interest in knowing what was going on beyond the doorsteps leading into their homes.

The latter situation became commonplace with the growth of cities and the spread of urban society throughout the United States. But how do you reach all those people who were still living in small towns or in farms? That problem was solved in the decade leading up to World War I, and by 1920 commercial radio carrying news and entertainment was in just about every American home.

When it came to news, radio was supplanted by television when Lowell Thomas began simulcasting his radio news show on television in 1940, and by 1948 every national TV network was carrying a nightly news broadcast which continues today.

Most cities and towns in America now have local television affiliates which combine news stories with announcements because otherwise how do you fill up a half-hour or hour with some content beyond ads? That’s all well and good except for one thing.

Increasingly, the national news is also becoming nothing more than gossip and announcements masquerading as fact-based ‘news.’

I’ll continue this line of thought tomorrow in my next column about the Annenberg Collaborative’s exceptional book, Democracy Under Crises.

Please stay tuned.

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