As a former journalism student, a large portion of my undergraduate career was spent consuming the news, be that local or international. It seems natural that should you want to produce the news, your responsibility also is to know it. Utter the words “news quiz” to any journalism student in a five-mile radius of my alma mater though, and I promise you will see a disturbed shudder at the very least, and at the most, a full-out breakdown.
Our program demanded a constant ingestion of the news. We were to read papers, browse online articles, follow media outlets on Twitter and like them on Facebook. And while a large majority of us skimmed headlines—memorizing important dates, the proper spelling of political figures and international cities we were sure to find on the unwelcome weekly news quizzes—we did learn.
We learned which aspects of the news enthralled us, be it sports or politics or the city beat (just kidding, no one liked the city beat). We learned about the emergence of news stories and how they transformed over time. We learned about the type of stories that capture an audience, regardless of their importance or moreover, their impact on a larger scale.
We learned how to be informed citizens at a time when the majority of our peers browsed celebrity gossip or skimmed the feeds of Instagram and Facebook. We learned how to be journalists, we learned how to consume and to report and to inform, but more importantly we learned to ask questions. We learned context. And an event, an occurrence, anything without context, is useless.
The other day my landlady ran to my door exclaiming that I had been on the news. She request that I sit with her during the English version of the program. Dreading seeing myself on the other side of the camera, but interested nonetheless, I obliged. The annual appreciation event of the early childhood programme I work with found itself nestled in a modest one-minute position towards the end of the newscast, leaving the two of us watching the entire program in anticipation.
Earlier that day, towards the end of our event, unusually loud shouting erupted from the streets. Underneath the gate, the heavy and rapid feet of individuals forming a crowd hit the pavement hard, chasing something I could not see, cheering for something that I could not understand. Bewildered and a little scared, I allowed the gate at work to act as a shield between the uproar and myself.
The breaking news story that night was about the mayor and his possible impeachment, which had been overturned earlier that same day. The story cut to streams of b-roll: stamping of feet, shouting of the mayor’s supporters and abrupt honking of encouragement from involved vehicles all passing the area in which I worked. The unfolding events on the television were jarringly familiar.
I thought, at that moment, about those news quizzes, about one of the most important things those dreaded tests and my program at large had taught me: context. They taught me to research, to inquire and to not take anything at face value. They taught me things that all of us, regardless of career or current residence, should practice.
When you live abroad—more often then not without access to a television or regular Internet—it’s easy to lose touch. It’s easy to make quick observations about your surroundings and allow initial impressions to develop into solidified beliefs. The importance of context though, on your experience in a place or your perception of it can mean the difference between negativity and positivity, the difference between reinforcing stereotypes and spreading knowledge.
Never once on those early Monday mornings, desperately skimming through news headlines after a weekend of a sleep-food-study induced coma from the world’s events, did I think I was learning an important life skill. Not until the day that context, the day being informed changed my perception from one of fear, to one of understanding.