News judgment can be open to debate
People have been extremely welcoming in Wauneta. In the short time I’ve been here, it’s already begun to feel like home.
But I’ve been in my business long enough, and lived in enough places, to know that feeling may take a beating. I’m wondering if people will be as friendly when I have to run some bad news on the front page.
Thankfully, in a market the size of The Breeze’s, that’s a relatively rare thing. Most of the stories we run are either happy (somebody’s accomplished something) or purely informational (details about new teachers in the district).
But mark my words, something bad will happen here and will show up on our front page.
Folks who live in small towns often feel insulated—often are insulated—from some of the news’ more distressing stories. It’s one reason many of us choose to live in a small town.
But it happens.
In the three years I worked in a 5,000-population town in Iowa, we had a shooting; an 18-year-old high school dropout brutally murdered his parents and then, two months to the day, hanged himself in jail; and a female teacher at the high school was charged with having an inappropriate relationship with a student.
Granted, those are highly unusual incidents in a small town. And the smaller the town, the rarer they are.
Such stories are never easy to write; the murder-suicide was one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever covered, even by murder story standards. But in a small-town paper, such stories are a bit more delicate.
For one thing, everybody in town knows the story subjects and has an opinion about them. We never named the student who was sleeping with the teacher, but everybody in town knew who it was before we ever published a word on it. That colored readers’ views of our coverage; many thought that even though we never printed his name, we somehow outed him.
And because everybody in town knows the subject of a negative story, they have a personal connection that readers of bigger newspapers rarely have. When I did a crime story on the biggest paper I ever worked on, I knew that no more than a handful of my readers would have a connection to the person or people in the story. In Wauneta, it’s exactly the opposite; virtually everybody will know the person, usually for a long time.
I know that how we do virtually everything we do at The Breeze is a big mystery to most people. That goes in spades for my particular job. “Why did you do that story?” is among the most common question I’m asked.
Well, there is something of a checklist for whether something is a news story, but it’s often a judgment call.
For the record, there are several traditional criteria by which something is a news story. They are, in no particular order:
Proximity: How physically close an event is to the reader. A nonfatal car crash in Wauneta would be of less interest in Lincoln, while it would make the paper here;
Prominence: How well known are the people involved? If an average guy gets caught driving drunk, it probably won’t be a story. If the governor gets nabbed for it, it’s a big story;
Significance: How important is the story to the reader? This is one of the dicier judgment calls;
Timeliness: How recent is it? At a certain point, absent a fresh angle, an old story morphs into history, rather than journalism;.
Human interest: Is there something about the story that will amuse the reader, or stir sympathy, or say something about the human condition?;
Unusualness: If it’s weird, it’s news. Ask yourself how many stories you’ve read about somebody in Florida doing something deeply strange;
Conflict: When people are at loggerheads, especially people in government, it’s a story.
If you want to see how it works, try watching the news or reading the paper with the list handy. Some stories are news due to one or more of the criteria. And truth to tell, some don’t fit any of them. They’re news because an editor needed to fill space or a news director time.
News judgment is as much art as science. And it’s always open to debate. If you ever disagree with my news judgment, feel free to call me on it.
But really, I can have the best reasons in the world for doing an unpopular story and in the end, none of my defenses of it will matter to someone who feels injured by it. There are, what to me, are good and sufficient reasons for every story I write. But if someone feels injured by a story I do, the fact is that whatever reasons I had for doing it are irrelevant. Their pain is what’s real to them and I have to acknowledge that, even if I don’t apologize for it.
Causing collateral damage is one of the less desirable parts of my job, even if it’s sometimes unavoidable. And I fully realize saying “it’s unavoidable” sounds like B.S. to the injured party.
So take this as a partial explanation and also as fair warning. You’re not always going to like everything you see in The Breeze. I hope you’ll like more than you don’t, and I promise I’ll always keep in mind that difficult stories affect the lives of real, flesh-and-blood people who sometimes get caught in circumstances beyond their control.
But I have to do those kinds of stories anyway, if only because sometimes things happen and attention must be paid. I get no joy out of disturbing stories, but my job comes with certain duties. One of those is to tell stories that people sometimes would rather not hear.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org