Communication scholars call them agenda-setters, gatekeepers or filters. To their employees, they are the budget-setters. To their audiences, they are the ones to blame if something goes unreported or something is inaccurate.
Within the profession, they are editors and news directors, the ones who sift through the prodigious amount of news flowing in relentlessly from wire services or staff reporters and decide which are stories reported in the finite amount of space or time available, where they run in the pecking order, and how much space or time they are alotted.
It is an extraordinary responsibility in a free society, one that carries with it tremendous ethical considerations of fairness and balance.
Consider the power: A handful of people decides what news will be read by tens of thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of people, and which stories will be like the treee falling in the forest, not making a noise because nobody can read them.
What takes place in those budget meetings?
“It’s an exceedingly complex process of maybe 20 different considerations, maybe more, and you’ve got from 20 to 30 editors involved,” said Mike Drago, state editor of the Dallas Morning News, a 450,000-circulation daily in a tri-ethnic metropolitan area of more than 1 million people and a statewide circulation. “On any given day it boils down to a handful of stories. To me, it comes down to two questions: Is this story boring or interesting? Is this story relevant or irrelevant to our readers? If no one wants to read it, then why are you spending your resources reporting it?”
Like other agenda-setters, Drago has to strike a delicate balance between what readers want to read, which stimulates circulation and advertising revenue, and what they need to know.
“Some stories may be boring but still have to be reported because they’re important,” Drago said. “We still have to fulfill our duty in a democracy as a watchdog.”
Russell LaCour, copy editor at the Tulsa World, had an almost identical assessment.
“If you give them just what they want, then you’re just giving them entertainment, and we’re nothing more than bloggers, and we’re not serving as watchdogs,” he said.
Casey Bukro, night editor at the Chicago Tribune, is a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee. He played down any suggestion that there is anything “Machiavellian” about the budgeting process.
“Sometimes it is just a matter of what the day brings,” he said.
“The joy and wonderment of this business is that news happens every day, and a lot of it is surprising and unexpected. So we give our readers a picture of what is going on in the world each day. That’s where balance comes in,” Bukro said. “We want to be sure it is a fair and accurate picture, and to do the news justice by explaining it where it needs explanation.
“There’s not always an agenda behind the placement of stories,” Bukro continued. “Sometimes, it’s what is available. Other times it’s very deliberate, such as when a news organization has done an investigative piece, for example, and wants to give that, or a series of stories, a high profile. Certainly there is the issue of newsworthiness, meaning the story must be relevant. What does it say about the community? How important is it to the readers? Is it something readers should know?”
Ken Hanner, national editor of the Washington Times, has other considerations. His is a conservative daily, owned by the Rev. Sung Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which competes with one of the country’s most prestigious dailies: The Washington Post, which has about seven times the circulation of the Times.
“We are known as a conservative paper, so our story selection is based on what conservatives might be interested in,” said Hanner, who said the paper’s readership base is in Washington’s affluent Virginia and Maryland suburbs. “Our main focus has been to offer something that others don’t have. We can’t have the same stuff as The Post. We try to have investigative and enterprise reporting.”
Local television news directors have similar selection criteria, plus added pressure of competition from other stations.
“Like most stations, everyone has input…,” said Vicki Zimmerman, news director at WAFB-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge, La. “After we go through the must-covers, like the mayor’s news conference, governor’s media briefing, legislative committee meetings, etc., and everyone’s ideas, we discuss a lot about what is important to our community. … Our first question is, what story has the greatest viewer value?”
In general, she said, priority is given to public safety, including severe weather and health threats. Like Drago and LaCour, she said WAFB often gives viewers what she feels they need to know.
“Since we are in the capital city, we follow state government very closely,” she said, “not because of the so-called ‘viewer value,’ but because viewers need to know about what goes on in state government because it will affect their lives. We know that a very large group of our viewers don’t care about what happens in state government, but I feel as though we have a responsibility to tell them anyway.”
In an era when diversity has been accorded greater journalistic importance, gatekeepers also must juggle coverage of the various ethnic communities in their cities.
Bukro noted that the SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to “examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.”
“Implicit in that is attempting to understand the cultural values of others,” Bukro said. “Every good newspaper has a daily dialogue with the community it serves. A paper doesn’t just talk to the community; the community also talks to the newspaper in various ways.”
He cited a recent demonstration of Chicago’s huge immigrant community — Hispanics, Chinese, Polish, Irish — calling for immigration reform. Their argument, Bukro said, was that immigrants are an economic asset, not a burden.
“The Tribune listens to such messages and covers various ethnic communities in the Chicago region,” he said.
Dallas, meanwhile, has almost co-equal white, black and Hispanic communities, and like most urban areas, a polyglot of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East and the Far East.
Drago conceded the importance of covering the three major communities, but he insisted that in setting the budget, “That’s just one consideration. It rarely comes down to one community versus another community. It’s an organic process, a natural process, and it never comes down to, ‘Gee, we’re going to do a story on one community at the expense of another community.’ ”
In Hanner’s case, the conservative Times has a few readers in the predominantly black District of Columbia, but he maintained that the Times does not ignore them. He added that his urban affairs writer, Brian DeBose, is black.
“A lot of black readers appreciate the kind of coverage they get in the Times as opposed to The Post,” he said. “The Post tends to see them as victims, as the downtrodden of society. We try to focus on success stories, like black entrepreneurs.”
Hanner added that the Times also attempts to appeal to the large Hispanic and Asian communities in Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va.
Acknowledging the delicate issue of the Times’ ownership by the Unification Church, Hanner said that a decade ago, Editor Wes Pruden introduced a regular Monday feature, “Capital Pulpit,” that includes excerpts from a sermon that day at one of the Washington-area churches, with the denomination rotating each week.
LaCour’s position is the antithesis of Hanner’s: He is a black gatekeeper in a city with a black population of about 7 percent. Asked if he believes the World fairly represents the black community in its coverage, he replied with a chuckle, “As an employee of the paper, I say yes; as a citizen, I say no. I’ve heard blacks say it (the World) doesn’t support African-Americans or their causes, but there’s no effort in my opinion to be anti-black. The World focuses on development issues of importance to blacks. We have talked about the mind-set that a paper needs to reflect the community in the stories and the images in the paper. Do we quantify them? I don’t think so.”
LaCour said the Tulsa area has a much larger American-Indian population than a black population, and the World has an American-Indian reporter, Susan Ruckman, assigned full time to that beat. He explained that there is no black beat, but rather a beat for the low-income residents, encompassing whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Baton Rouge, already a bi-ethnic city of a quarter of a million, experienced a demographic earthquake as it became Louisiana’s largest city overnight in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This has created new journalistic challenges.
“We have a very diverse newsroom, and I think it is imperative that everyone have an equal voice,” Zimmerman said. “I can tell you what a 50-year-old white woman wants to see in the news, but I may not have a clue about what is important to a 30-year-old black man. That is why it is so important that our staff reflect our community. Each newscast has a slightly different demographic, so it’s important we know who our audience is so that we can program our news accordingly.”
La Cour, who is director of Region 5 of the National Association of Black Journalists, which includes Louisiana, complained that the images in the wake of Katrina were racially stereotypical.
“I remember two pictures side by side showing people walking through water carrying food, and the blacks were called looters and the whites were refugees,” he said. “It’s really ironic what happened. The thing that made the civil rights movement go were the TV cameras that showed what segregation was like, the police dogs. Katrina showed things we thought had been put to bed, like the poverty.”
Fred Brown, a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a former national president, was an agenda-setter himself for much of his career as political editor of the Denver Post.
“I would agree with those editors who said relevance is their most important consideration,” he said. “In my opinion, the ethics of news placement involves much more than seeking diversity of coverage. Certainly, serving all of one’s readership is important. One of the things I always tell my journalism students is to ‘talk to people who aren’t like you.’
“However, if they were being totally honest, they also would have said interest is a major consideration. Every front page has at least one story that has a great deal of interest but isn’t especially relevant — something to break up the gray space.”
Brown complained that the media sometimes tend to play up sensational stories, especially those with star appeal or involving lurid crimes, because agenda-setters know they attract readers or viewers.
“In the Denver area, we’ve had a number of stories that have attracted a disproportionate amount of front-page coverage,” he said. “I could mention the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsey, the Kobe Bryant sex-assault case, Professor Ward Churchill’s inflammatory remarks and, (more recently), the case of an Overland High School teacher who compared Bush’s State of the Union speech to some of Hitler’s thinking. Editors need to ask themselves if they’re giving a story major play because it’s relevant and important or simply because everyone else is playing the hell out of it.”
Both Brown and Bukro, drawing on their roles as both agenda-setters and ethical consciences, stressed that editors should strive to seek a balance between two of the Code’s clauses: “Seek truth and report it” and “Minimize harm.”
“It probably doesn’t matter much where a story is placed; if it damages someone’s reputation or puts someone at risk, it will do so whether it’s on 1-A or 17-C,” Brown said. “Visuals are a different matter. The first photos from Abu Ghraib were properly on most front pages, but what about those charred corpses from Fallujah? Or stills from the beheading of Daniel Pearl? Both were relevant, but an ethical editor must consider whether it’s really in everyone’s best interest to play them large and in color on the front page.”
Bukro stressed that communication is changing rapidly, especially the Internet with the rise of bloggers, who have their own agenda. But he said all gatekeepers should adhere to ethical principles and to remember that audiences are human beings.
“One way or another, we hear the voices of people in our community,” Bukro said. “Sometimes we speak to them directly… Other times we hear from them indirectly, but we hear them, and we are moved. That’s how news gets covered, not simply by cold-hearted doping sessions. The story speaks to us, and we respond.”
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is a journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee.