We hear it in newsrooms, in conferences, in pubs: “What is journalism anymore?” Not a new question. We must have asked it when newspapers learned how to turn photographs into halftones or when it occurred to radio stations that they could cover news or when television became a major news medium.
But when Twitter becomes the only medium that successfully gets news from places like Iran and North Korea, when YouTube destroys political careers (with the help of the politicians themselves), when bloggers and 24-hour TV news stations forget to let readers know whether they report with bias, the question becomes more frequent and strident — and a question of ethics.
Anyone who thinks he or she knows what journalism is in this era of blogs and Twitter is certainly free to rant. But don’t be surprised if we season the conclusions with a bag of salt. It would be folly to even guess a definition without first getting our arms around the concept of 21st-century newsworthiness and the ethics that concept implies.
What we can say, though, is that the whole concept of newsworthiness is cloudier. That blob of a concept, “digital media convergence,” has helped blur what we think of as newsworthiness. So have social media. And TV news anchors who sound balanced, but aren’t, blur definitions further.
Reporting without bias apparently has become uncool. When Lou Dobbs was asked to tone down his anti-immigrant sinecure on CNN, he said the cable network was forcing him into a “non-opinion show.” Bland. Iffy. Just not fun. “It was just not gratifying to me to sit there and read a news show,” he said. “And I much prefer to be more engaged.”
NEWSWORTHINESS TRENDS: ETHICS, STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
“It does appear that some long-range changes in newsworthiness have occurred,” Howard Williams, a retired wire service, newspaper and TV news editor in Los Angeles, said in an e-mail. “Not in the judgment calls about what to use, but in what is available. There are some new entries in the newsworthy category. Our religious wars, at home and overseas, add new matters to examine and use or toss.”
The new news media have contributed to a greater acceptance of one-time taboos, Williams said. “Half a century ago, the word ‘abortion’ was not used in family newspapers,” he said. “It was called ‘illegal operation.’ The word ‘screw’ would not be used then, but is part of daily chatter in print and talk today. In those days, nudity on any legal screen was not allowed.”
It’s not just a matter of what’s no longer forbidden. The basic ethical question has become how well the new news media serve the public. Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton addresses that question in his 2009 book, “Junk News: The Failure of the Media in the 21st Century.”
“Can’t we get all the news we need from the Internet, 24-hour cable news and our local television programs?” Fenton asks. “… about 80 percent of all news on the Internet originates in newspapers, either directly or indirectly. News agencies pick up stories from newspapers. Web sites pick up news stories from news agencies. … Not even the fabulously successful Google and Yahoo search engines have their own reporters. They sift through the newspapers and news agency reports for their content. … If newspapers fire their journalists, they cut off the news-gathering food chain at its source.” [Editor’s note: Yahoo has since ramped up its original news reporting, and recently announced that it will hire journalists and maintain a Washington, D.C., bureau.]
Clyde Linsley, a Washington-area novelist and former newspaper editor, wrote this for the American Independent Writers blog:
“The news has to come from somewhere. Right now, it comes mostly from newspapers and news services. … If newspapers die out, as they seem to be, where will that content come from? … These techno-geek guys have grown accustomed to the idea that content is, if not free, at least a negligible expense, like the cost of acquiring a domain or a new piece of software. If we’re lucky, they’re in for a rude awakening. … Newspapers understand that they have to spend money to produce their product, but the Internet has made most of those production costs irrelevant.”
BACK TO BASICS: WHAT IS NEWSWORTHINESS?
What determines newsworthiness in newspapers, magazines, radio/television and online, and do those standards still apply? No one marches in lock step, but we can find some consensus on what those criteria are.
Many working professionals consider it a waste of time to list all the criteria of newsworthiness; their attitude is, “Why bother?” But the good ones have adapted the process to work for them. Let’s take a few paragraphs to review the old standards and see which still apply, and how much. A review of newsworthiness criteria might help. (See sidebar.)
It’s fair to say that the 21st century has brought with it an even greater emphasis on celebrity, and that emphasis can skew our perspective on the news. For example: After Sarah Palin began her book tour in November, a former wire service reporter and editor, Margie Bauman of Anchorage, Alaska, had this to say in an e-mail:
“There’s been way too much media hype on where people are lining up to have Palin sign her book. There are many more places in Alaska where the book is not selling that well, even at a 40 percent discount. Borders has the book on sale for $17.39 and Costco for $15.79, and they are not exactly flying off the shelves. One bookseller at Borders said maybe that’s because Palin has alienated so many Alaskans,” Bauman said. “The media should report the news rather than act as a public relations agency for people who are becoming famous for being famous.”
Bauman’s statement finds itself up against another definition of what makes news, though. People lining up en masse to buy a book, especially from someone with national appeal, is as much news as someone not lining up.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s when celebrity doings become virtually the sole reason to run a story that we attract our own PR problems and get lumped in with paparazzi and supermarket tabloids. Then it’s only a small hop from our traditional view of celebrity news to manufacturing publicity stunts. Not long before Palin’s book tour, we witnessed the coverage of the Colorado “Balloon Boy.” Shortly after came the couple who crashed a White House party and then offered their story for any news medium willing to pay for it.
Then came the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. We who have worked in the so-called mainstream media can no longer say we never pay for an interview. According to the blog TVNewser and several Web sites, three media outlets — CNN, the New York Post and ABC News — paid a hero on the flight, Jasper Schuringa, a total of $18,000 for two fuzzy cell-phone photos. All three got interviews with Schuringa.
The new electronic media are helping redefine one of the basics, the local angle. The academic world has noticed.
“I would say that the new media have really blurred the lines in terms of proximity, because we’re now connected to the world, not just the person down the street,” said Kirsten Johnson of Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College and a former TV news producer. “You’re connected to a wider community; they want to know more about the world. It will be interesting to see where we go with it.”
Timeliness, negativity and rarity continue to play a role. If a TV anchor gets interrupted by a story that says two airliners have struck the World Trade Center and a third has taken out part of the Pentagon, viewers are witnessing a story of great newsworthiness — in September 2001. The 9/11 story and its updates and effects still make plenty of news, but the event itself no longer does.
Critics of the news media often accuse us of emphasizing negativity, and they’re right. One reason negativity makes news is because it’s rare. If it’s rare and positive, it can still make news.
If someone wins millions of dollars in a lottery, that is usually news for the inside pages of a publication or further down in a newscast. If someone wins millions of dollars two years in a row, that is astounding and astoundingly newsworthy.
Positive stories can and do make it into print and on the air, but even a cheerful story about a child who is rescued unharmed from a well contains an embedded negative: that the child fell into the well to begin with.
Positivity also finds its way into stories about charity benefits, windfall tax revenues or new museums, or maybe art, music, gourmet cooking, architecture, high-exposure gossip (remember celebrity) or any number of “personal news” segments: personal health, personal finance, romantic matchmaking, fashion or social-skills development. Some academics gather these personal news stories under the helpfulness heading. Others fall under the category of entertainment.
Or a positive story could be something as lightweight as this story in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn.:
“When Joe Gomez popped a pepperoni pizza in the oven Oct. 15, he had no idea the pie was for President Bush. …
“‘This military guy came in and ordered three large pepperoni pizzas and told me to make them good for his boss,’ said Gomez, manager of Milano’s New York Pizza in Southhaven. ‘I thought his boss was some colonel, not President Bush.’”
Such a story might well find a delivery system composed of tweets. If it were recorded by someone’s spycam, it might break into the week’s most-viewed YouTube stories.
YouTube and other social media are bound to magnify conflict, especially if it involves: someone prominent, say, Donald Trump versus Oprah Winfrey; the debate on how quickly U.S. forces should withdraw from Iraq; or who was most responsible for the slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina: the federal, state or local government.
One category of newsworthiness, human interest, is a grab bag. It refuses to be defined. It includes all variety of features from heart-rending to fluffy, and it can include the old-media staples of weather and sports.
That brings us to one criterion of newsworthiness that can create much difficulty for the new electronic media. Call it impact, importance or need-to-know. An old debate pits those who would give the readers, viewers and listeners whatever they want to read, see or hear against those who would argue that consumers should get what is good for them, whether or not it tastes good. Tom Fenton argues that importance has taken the biggest hit from the new news media. Even though new media depend on newspapers to provide basic coverage, “corporate owners of newspapers are shedding hundreds of journalist jobs each year in an effort to squeeze more profits from shrinking markets … they are eating their seed corn. The public is finding that hollowed-out newspapers and junk television news programs are increasingly useless.” Media cutbacks have contributed much to American ignorance about what goes on elsewhere, according to Fenton.
Joshua Keating, deputy Web editor at Foreign Policy magazine, agrees. In the Outlook section of the Nov. 29 Washington Post, he led with this paragraph:
“Sometimes it’s those news stories that don’t feel the love from cable talk shows or the blogosphere that reveal the most about what really happened in a given year. [The year] 2009 had plenty of them. From a naval alliance that could shift the balance of power on two continents to the risk of another housing bubble,” such stories “could dominate the conversation in 2010.”
Keating listed eight stories, among them:
• We might be tempted to consider Iraq a closed book now that the United States is concentrating on Afghanistan, but “Iraq has any number of potential flash points. Most troubling may be the growing fears of a new conflict between Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish populations.”
• Brazil was “only too happy to let Chinese train aboard its 52-year-old carrier.” According to a Pentagon estimate, China could have several aircraft carriers by 2020.
• The State Department issues “‘e-passports’ … carrying biometric data to prevent forgery,” but a Government Accountability Office investigator “obtained four genuine U.S. passports using fake names. One included the Social Security number of a man who died in 1965.”
Pardon the cliché, but who knew? And why didn’t we?
A PROBLEM OF NEWSWRITING
Our apparent inability or unwillingness to cover complex but important issues isn’t only a problem of coverage. It’s a writing problem.
For example, the average tax legislation story is difficult for most people to get through. It’s usually dry, and the average report seems to reflect just how dull the hearing was that the reporter covered. Yet, every adult American is supposed to pay taxes, and for many, the process is painful. So everyone stands to benefit or lose something from the way tax revenues are spent. Although most tax stories prove dull, the impact of the taxes is not. Take this effort in a 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article:
“School property taxes will rise in Waukesha County by as much as 14 percent for the residents of one district and as little as 1 percent for those in another, under levies approved by school boards over the last two weeks.
“Although the Richmond School District is expected to have the highest percent tax increase in the county, at 14.4 percent, three other local school districts also anticipate double-digit percent spikes in their levies. The levy for the Arrowhead School District is scheduled to rise 12.2 percent, while residents in the Mukwonago and Muskego-Norway school districts can expect to pay 11 percent more for their public schools.”
Just because the numbers don’t exactly charm the reader doesn’t mean the story must be dull. The subject is, after all, taxes. Most readers pay taxes. So why begin with paragraphs laden with statistics? What is the impact of this story, on whom? Answering those kinds of questions typically leads to good journalistic writing.
A more readable lede might be:
“Taxpayers in the Richmond School District might feel disgruntled today when they learn their taxes increased 14.4 percent this year, the highest in Waukesha County. Those in the county’s Lake Country School District might feel a little better than their Richmond neighbors. Their taxes rose only 1 percent.”
The inability of many reporters to make an impact story interesting to a general audience — without writing down to that audience — might be one reason that glitzy stories about celebrities seem more newsworthy than tax stories. Since many online media measure a story’s importance by the number of hits it registers, a celebrity story is likely to appear more important, even if it’s about Prince Harry scratching his nose.
THE ETHICS OF ADEQUATE COVERAGE
Tracey Segarra, a former wire service editor in Garden City, N.Y., says the one thing that seems to be getting ignored during the transition from traditional media to new is the need for solid reporting, the kind that many media corporations are reluctant to pay for.
“We will always need trained journalists to separate the wheat from the chaff and provide context for the ever-increasing stream of data making its way onto everyone’s Twitter, Facebook accounts and Blackberrys,” Segarra wrote in an e-mail. “Once [Rupert] Murdoch and others figure out a way to monetize professional journalism so that it actually makes money, professional media will rise again. Just imagine a world where tweeters are just re-tweeting themselves and their opinions, and all the links to The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and trade journals are gone. My hunch is that most people take trained journalists for granted, and only when they aren’t getting that filtered and curated stream of news and commentary will they realize what they’re missing.”
In his book, “My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times,” Harold Evans wrote, “The question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant, but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism. In the end, it is not the delivery system that counts, it’s what it delivers.”
Robert Knight is a veteran wire service, print and broadcast reporter, and editor who has also taught journalism. He is a past president of SPJ’s Chicago Headline Club and author of “Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft,” to be released May 1 by Marion Street Press. He lives near Gettysburg, Pa. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.