Monday, May 16, 2005

Where Does News Come From?

I was disturbed by a recent post on the NEWSBREAKERS message board, when I asked a guest "Do you think about where your news comes from?” and he confidently replied “News are daily events ranging from a local beetle being killed by an unemployed man to President ‘Whoever’ blowing up the world (sic) wmd's.”

Allow me to talk about Scooby Doo for a second. I’m dead serious, so bear with me. A dear friend of mine said that when she was growing up, she thought that “Clues” were created when a crime was committed, then subsequently spread all over a crime scene like an Easter egg hunt. Detectives, like Scoob, Shaggy, Freddy and the gang (which only later would include Scrappy), would then hunt for these Clues which, once collected, would ultimately solve the ghostly crime. It’s a fine distinction, and not too far off from the truth, but as she got older, she realized that clues were not strewn about and gathered by homicide detectives, but that successful detectives were primarily responsible for identifying what exactly could be considered a clue in the first place.

It’s this common myth that news consumers rarely take the time to contemplate.

Each day, fire departments respond to dozens of calls, police departments respond to hundreds. Politicians make several decisions each week, some crucial, some almost immediately irrelevant. And there are tons of politicians. These events comprise just part of government activity, while private citizens, commercial and non-profit organizations release what they believe--or at least hope--to be news every chance they get. These potential stories are diligently reviewed by news organizations, then filtered and processed by reporters, editors, and news directors to comprise the news of the day.

They use rules like TIPPOH (timeliness, importance, prominence, proximity, oddity, and human interest) to determine what is news, requiring that a story meets as many of these elements as possible to be considered “newsworthy.” Conflict often makes this list as well.

News isn’t created by the source, as much as by the news outlet, in the same way that clues aren’t created by the crime, but by the detective.

Our guest was concerned not “about where the news comes from but more on how it is spread,” failing to recognize that these are one and the same. Sure, biases in a story's delivery are troubling, but failure to accept the news professionals’ role as agenda setters ignores their most serious responsibility of all. News professionals can’t tell their consumers what to think, but they can tell them what to think about.

I offer NEWSBREAKERS as an example, not to be self-gratuitous, but because it is one example of a valid story that meets the above criteria, but threatens a news organization’s perception of their own credibility and/or standing in their community, and as such simply can’t be covered. One news director at a station we have yet to work with issued a memo to his staff (in the event that we pay them a visit) to suppress our story by ignoring us, instructing them to treat our events in the same way that they would treat an indecent occurrence during a live shot, so that they will not deem us newsworthy. If it meets news criteria, and is not indecent, why the premeditated cencorship plot? If the story were truly anything but newsworthy, such a memo would not need to be issued.

The debate over what is newsworthy is a discussion reserved for newsrooms. Consumers readily process and discuss stories news teams choose to cover, though consumers rarely acknowledge the control granted to their media to create news in the first place.

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