Thursday, June 18, 2009

News? What's that?

I haven't been updating this as much as I wanted, but I guess life gets in the way.

This post is to explore a question that has always been harder than necessary for me. Since I want to go into the news business, I figured it was important to know what was newsworthy. I read the paper practically everyday, but that doesn't help much. Things that I think shouldn't be important make the paper. Do I care about Jon and Kate's marriage crisis? Actually, following that has been a bit of a hobby of mine, but even I can tell that it is one issue that shouldn't be covered in a mainstream paper dedicated to "news". In my news gathering class, we learned that the two most important questions to ask to determine if something is newsworthy are 'So what?' and 'Who cares?' That works most of the time, but just because people care about something, doesn't make it important.

The mundane lives of celebrities have made the news for a long time because people think they care about that. (Though going deeper into celebrity news will require another post). There are also the sayings "When it bleeds, it leads", which means that the more gruesome and violent a story, the better it will be received. Happy news does tend to get left to brief mentions at the end. News also has to sometimes be sensational, something people wouldn't encounter in their daily lives often, which would make it most interesting. This is best captured in the quote by the former New York Sun editor John B. Bogart,
"When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news." There is also the fact that the news is a business that has to sell itself. Sometimes I think that what is newsworthy depends entirely on what will sell, which is a kind of depressing thought.

If that were the case, maybe a better question would be, What should be news? That might be an even harder question. Early on, everyone who wants to be a journalist is given a list of 9 'news values'. They're a good benchmark, but they are also not everything. Just because a story is a little weird, or involves a prominent person, or just happened, for example, doesn't make it news. I find that the best way to tell is a kind of a gut feeling. You look at something, and you just know. Or you think you know anyways. I try to go by things that I would want to know more about, or things that would make a good story. Then again, in class we learn how to make a good story out of the most mundane of things. I try to make it about what needs to be known, not necessarily what people want to know. Thinking of a newspaper or other news outlet as an aid to democracy is a good benchmark to determine what is worthy of the news.

So have I really answered the question? Possibly not. Here's a pretty good example that can be used to determine what you think news is. This is also taken from Chuck Klosterman's "Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs", not word for word since I don't have it on me, but the main idea.

Suppose you are the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times. It is your job to decide what goes on the front page. This particular day, Scientists find and kill an authentic Bigfoot. By a strange coincidence, U.S. government captures the live Loch Ness Monster and are running experiments. On the very same day the president of the U.S. finds out he has inoperable brain cancer that will be fatal. What do you put on the front page?

This is a tough question. Even so, I hope to be in such a position some day, because that would be pretty cool. My first instinct is to not run the president story. Yeah, he's a pretty important guy, everyone knows that. On a day without all those other things, it would probably make the front page. However, all that story has is a famous person. Sadly, a lot of people get terminal cancer everyday, and that never makes the news. It will, of course, be in the paper somewhere. On a day like this, however, the event itself is too common, though the person it happened to is famous.

It's hard to pick one of the other two. There can, of course, be 2 things on the front page, but one will end up being the biggest. I think these two stories are similar enough to combine. They're both about two things previously thought not to exist that have had their existence proven. "Mythological Creatures Found" the headline will say (or something like that). It can go into how each of the creatures are found, and what conclusions can be drawn from finding them both on the same day. That story will make a very good issues of my paper. This is a far fetched scenario, but choices like this are made everyday. This or that? One will go on the front page, and one won't. Some things will be on the news, some won't. Happy things often fall into the "won't" category.

This entry hasn't solved anything, but what I hope to have done is to state that the question "What is news?" is one that has no definite answer, and must be answered day after day, story after story.