Our theme for the month of March is “Part Two.” Writers were challenged to choose a piece they’ve previously contributed to the post calvin and revisit it, perhaps writing sequel or reflecting on how things have changed.
Carolyn’s original post is “A Love Letter to Chimes.”
When I tell people that I’m researching local news, the response I get is fairly universal.
First reaction: “Isn’t local news dying?”
Second reaction: “I feel like I should care about local news, but I don’t think I do.”
Sample responses: “I just don’t want to read about local crime, or who got arrested this week.” “Local tv just dumbs down things that were already stupid to begin with.” “I just don’t care that much about local news.” “The news is too controversial; everyone has a bias or agenda of some kind.”
I have thought each of these thoughts myself at some point, and think that they are reasonable reactions to the state of local news today.
But if we don’t care about our local news, it’s not because we as a population no longer care about news. We just care about different news. All of us have ‘beats’ we follow; for example, a lot of the adults I know cover the CRC beat. Their dinner conversations consist of news of a news pastor at some church, the interpersonal drama at another church, and the latest sermon or lecture they attended at their own. They cover the CRC to a greater and deeper extent than any news publication.
Similarly, a lot of us since the 2016 election have cultivated a new or renewed attention to the national politics beat. I use the word cultivate ironically here, as we haven’t so much ‘cultivated’ this, as you might a taste for fine food, as we have been force-fed.
The question of local news is a question of community, attention and choice. Perhaps my generation’s attention span is shorter than previous generations’—I’m not a psychologist; I can’t say for sure. But even if our span is shorter, we have just as much attentional capacity as anyone else. We simply have more—nearly endless—choices as to what to pay attention to.
As a member of several highly specific meme-sharing groups on Facebook, I know that the ability to find or create a community online is an incredible development, and those communities are real places people can go to belong, to create real meaning.
But as we increasingly choose what communities we want to be a part of, and as we increasingly self-select based on identity, we have the potential to increasingly isolate ourselves in sameness, instead of diversity.
Facebook purports to be the new public square, a place where communities can share news person-to-person, without intermediaries. But the architecture of Facebook makes this suspect; first, each one of us has their own individualized community, made up of their connections, centered around themselves. That’s not an authentic community, that’s an ego feedback loop. Second, Facebook’s algorithm organizes and creates hierarchies in this community, without explanation, transparency, or any kind of communication. The idea that it allows community without intermediaries is misguided; and those intermediaries in the case of Facebook are hidden to us.
One thing I have always loved about the church is that in principle it’s a place where we worship alongside people who we would not otherwise associate with, people who we might never meet if our communities were self-selected. To caveat myself fairly strongly, today’s church communities are very self-selected, too, and the church I grew up in was nearly one hundred percent white and well-off, even though it’s in the same neighborhood as a low-income, substantially immigrant population.
In the true parish system of the old Anglican and Catholic churches, your neighborhood determined your church, and you worshipped next to those you might never say hello to on the street. Again, to caveat myself, people chose their neighborhoods based on their economic means, and within my romanticized parish system there were plenty of ways the rich were able to assert their superiority, in renting or purchasing their pews as their private property, for example. But my romanticism isn’t entirely without cause, either. While the church is flawed, deeply so, it still points toward the holy and the whole.
As ecocritic Timothy Morton observes, the weather, for so long the king of neutral conversation topics, the antithesis to the political and all other things divisive, can no longer be considered as such. The emerging effects of climate change mean that weather is no longer neutral, no longer tame. It can no longer be considered simply the backdrop to our day-to-day activities; we are all implicated by the weather, for our actions and inactions. And the weather will change us, too, more and more, as the planet warms. We are participants in it, whether we acknowledge or pay attention, or not.
All this to say: the place you live is not merely the setting to the story of your life. A good way to picture this attitude is its literal manifestation: think girls on Instagram who use gritty-looking brick walls or graffiti as “edgy” backgrounds for their personal photoshoots.
The call to turn your attention to local news is simple and small: it’s the same as the call to recognize that the place you live is not merely the backdrop to your life, just like your community is not centered around you personally, as Facebook would have you believe, and you can never entirely choose who you associate with, even though your choice may seem freer than ever. It’s the call to recognize that you are changing the place you live while it is changing you.
Carolyn Muyskens is a 2017 graduate of Calvin’s English department. She is working as a research assistant studying news media trends and as an assistant at a law firm. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.