A perspective on bad news

For Guyanese living abroad there are times when reports from home read like a litany of bad news; a succession of depressing accounts of domestic abuse, violent crime, political wrangling, inefficiency and corruption. The front pages of nearly every newspaper scream scary headlines and there is little relief from what might be called the ‘basket-case’ narrative. There never seems to be a shortage of people to blame, and always a large number of others willing to name and shame the offenders as stridently as possible.

This syndrome is hardly unique to us. A glimpse at Trinidad’s newspapers is, if anything, even more depressing. Indeed there are weeks in which a foreign reader might conclude that rape and murder were the primary activities in the twin island republic, at least while it wasn’t gearing up for another spate of corruption scandals, or Carnival.

The rest of the world can have predictable narratives too. These may be more varied, but they are volatile. During major sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup, the host nations’ PR efforts make them look like the Promised Land. Television viewers watch lavish paeans to the landscape and local culture and everyone forgets the bad news from a few months back. When the stock market surges, or Apple launches a new iPhone, the power of broadcast news makes it seem that everyone in the developed world has grown a bit wealthier, or at least owns one of the coveted devices.
Occasionally the market for good news suffers corrections: fiscal cliffs loom, runaway unemployment threatens social chaos in the Eurozone, madmen with automatic weapons massacre the innocent or set off bombs in buses and train stations. But the old myths reassert themselves, and peripheral nations, especially those in post-colonial societies, look at the first world with renewed envy.

Information theorists refer to these simplifications as a ‘confirmation bias’ in which people seek news that reinforces their beliefs. A certain type of American conservative may look only at Fox News, his liberal counterpart in Britain may only read the Guardian. Even in a globalized world their differing points of view rarely interact and we stick with news that tells us what we already know. But much of what we ‘know’ is deeply flawed, and not just because it is coloured by personal biases. In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date Samuel Arbesman warns that “[f]acts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. Meat used to be good for you, then bad to eat, then good again; now it’s a matter of opinion.” According to Arbesman every thirty years or so, roughly half of what we were taught in school is simply no longer true.
Instead of taking every scrap of bad news about Guyana, or the rest of the Caribbean, at face value, we should compare it with other countries, especially those in which we assume the news is generally good.

Most of us would consider Canada a repository of generally good news but that is hardly how the locals see it. In Toronto the mayor was recently removed from office after a bitter conflict of interest dispute; elementary school teachers have just had their strike action ruled illegal; the head of the District School Board has been forced to resign for plagiarism, and the hockey season is starting several months late, thanks to an industrial dispute. Further afield the prime minister is meeting with First Nations leaders in Ottawa after a hunger strike by a chief in Attawapiskat sparked popular protests across the country about the neglect of Indian affairs. In other news: last week a man was beaten to death on the Light Rail Transit system in Edmonton, in full view of passengers and the transit controllers who watched the assault on closed circuit television. In just a fortnight: protest, political wrangling, violent crime – all the bad news we are used to in Guyana. But these facts hardly tarnish our positive view of Canada. And rightly so.

Bad news doesn’t go away because it is ignored, but we should avoid thinking of life here, or anywhere else, in purely political or economic terms, and we should remember that hundreds of little triumphs – individual and collective – occur every day in Guyana and throughout the Caribbean, despite the doom and gloom of the radio, television and newspapers.

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