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What is news? 'Stories about current events create a sense of belonging'

For ten months, PhD student Sanne Rotmeijer worked on the editorial boards of various news media on Curaçao and Sint Maarten. She also tracked how news goes around on the streets and circulates on social media. The aim? To find out how stories became 'the news'.

'When we talk about "the news", we often talk about professional media and the stories they produce,' Rotmeijer explains. 'It’s then about newspapers, newsreels or interviews with politicians, but during my research I found out that news is much broader than that. It’s also how "ordinary" people turn everyday events into stories. These can be international or national, but also very local, such as news shared in the corridor and chitchat of the "Have you heard?" kind.'

What grows and spreads?

In her research, Rotmeijer therefore distinguishes between 'news', which includes everyday processes of story-making and sharing, and 'the news', which is about how media select from it. In practice, 'news' and 'the news' are closely related. 'I wanted to know how those processes of news-making create a sense of belonging.'

She focused on the islands of Curaçao and Sint Maarten. It is precisely the special position of these countries within the Dutch Kingdom that makes the distinction between 'news' and 'the news' palpable, she explains: 'Public life on the islands still reflects the way it was shaped during the colonial period. To explain this, I introduced the metaphor of the greenhouse. On the islands, the conditions were created for certain aspects of news to spread. That’s not to say, by the way, that there was only a pattern of suppression: in a greenhouse, there’s also room for sprawl, and for insects among the plants!'

The world in the greenhouse

By definition, though, there is limited space in a greenhouse. Although news stories can sometimes spread unexpectedly, it still means many stories are not included in 'the news'. 'The point of my book is that if you also look at 'news', all kinds of other processes and people suddenly become visible,' Rotmeijer says. Whereas 'the news' is mostly accessible to the middle and upper classes, we all use the informal circuits of 'news'. 'So to understand the sense of belonging in the world among lower classes, you have to look at that too.'

New perspective

Does this mean that news media should make a different selection to better serve these groups as well? 'I find that difficult to say,' says Rotmeijer. 'Much of what I have learned about “news” I have also learned from “the news”. “News” is also constantly filtering through in newsrooms. I tried to open up the idea of what news is and what it means to people. Above all, I hope that I have succeeded in offering a new perspective on that and that I’ve also been able to show how important “news” can be to feel at home somewhere. When I do my shopping in Rotterdam West, where I live, and I talk to people about a new building, you get a different idea of the home we share than when you only follow “the news”.'

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