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Monday, February 26, 2024

Column: Bad news first

Today’s international news stories refuse to settle into binary logics that would code them as either “cheerless” or “cheerful.” Rather, almost everything we read in the headlines is depressing and then maybe slightly less depressing.

From a choice of 12 international stories from The New York Times published Monday, for example, the least tragic was about Nelson Mandela being sent home from the hospital. It is a shame that as readers we must scour for these blood diamonds in the rough, if only because there is an abundance of other rarely reported, conflict-free stories.

Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, most famous for his anti-apartheid efforts and now 93, spent Saturday night undergoing a diagnostic procedure to ease his longstanding abdominal pains. His investigative laparoscopy, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sislu confirmed, did not indicate anything serious. Doctors, therefore, discharged Mandela the next morning.

While it is certainly a relief to hear our modern-day Ghandi is in better spirits, Mandela’s latest health scare reminds us of our mortality.

Until science catches up with God, we are all eventually going to face that final curtain someday. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, Death very kindly stops its carriage for us when we cannot — or do not want to — halt it ourselves. And if there is a single common denominator between living things, it is precisely the reality of the life cycle.

The media, of course, exploits this universal principle, enough so that the sterile texts and voices of our various news sources make sure we don’t forget our looming, undisclosed expiration dates. “Watch out,” reporters seem to caution with accounts of “Suicide Bombs in Nygeria” or “Blast Wounds in Afghanistan.” “You’re lucky,” correspondents might suggest by posting “Names of the Dead,” and “G.I.’s Remains Recovered from Iraq.”

When stories do err on the side of prosperity, though, they tend to have qualifying, and likely equally despondent, messages as any other piece. “Democracy in Senegal” easily turns into “Discontented Senagalese Vote for President.”  The U.S. teams with the new Yemen government, but on a strategy to combat Al Qaeda.

That news is more often pessimistic than optimistic isn’t necessarily journalists’ fault. A 1996 study at the University of Chicago found that humans were more willing to pass along bad news than equally believable good news, contradicting our general tendency to want to see the world as a place where good things happen to good people. Another study from the same report found that people do not display a simple preference for bad news. They instead transmit information that matches the same “emotional valence” of the conversation topic — bad or good news depending on whether the preceding topic is negative or positive.

Tragedy, however you look at it, sells for two of reasons: Humans are inherently, as Freud would argue, sadomasochists, or analogically wired. For the sake of not making this yet another demoralizing diatribe, let’s go with the second argument.

Our vantage points are set up in direct view of another; that is to say, we construct opinions and positions by comparing our situation to an opposite. Reading and watching the kind of morbid things we do is a way to confirm that no matter how unfortunate a day it has been, things could be — and are — worse. If anything, it’s a narcissistic way of reconciling with the world, yet it may be the only way we know.

Nelson Mandela offered an alternative direction to position ourselves in when he said, “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Instead of turning away or to another, we are well advised to face onward, in the direction of our very first step. Ahead. Unlike pages in a newspaper, progress doesn’t simply unfold.

Contact CHELSEA MEHRA at cmehra@ucdavis.edu if you have any happy news stories.


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