Lipsher: Man bites dog
summit daily news
Last week, I got read the riot act from a local real-estate agent who took exception to the story that we ran under the headline: “Summit County real-estate sales fell dramatic 35 percent in 2008.”
She argued that the headline was inflammatory and misleading and that we didn’t adequately play up the fact that average prices on the few homes that did sell actually had increased.
My defense was that the “news” was the big-picture slump, not the view that the real-estate community would have preferred.
The old saw in this business is that dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is news.
Beyond that, however, determining what is and isn’t news is pretty subjective.
Every day, we in the newsroom make judgments on what should be in the paper: Do the bulk of our readers really care about a neighborhood squabble? Should we devote precious space to a story about the appointment of a new mid-level local-government official? Does a robbery warrant news coverage?
The answer to each of those questions is: It depends.
News value is determined by a number of factors, all of which weigh into our daily decisions.
Is a story important? Is it something that readers need to know to function in our society ” be it a notification on road closures encountered on their commutes or an exploration of the issues in an upcoming election? Or does it bring them up to speed on a major issue confronting us, like war, social problems and public safety?
Is it nearby? Few of our readers are likely to care about a bus crash in India, but one on the Silverthorne hill potentially would be front-page news.
Is it timely? An event that occurred last week is, by definition, less “news” than one that happened this morning.
Does it involve conflict? Differences of opinion, Mark Twain said, are important ” they’re what make horse races. They’re also what make news, in the form of fights and lawsuits and politics and even sporting events.
Is a prominent person involved? The president can make news just by choking on a pretzel, and our culture is endlessly fascinated with the activities of a revolving cast of celebrities so ubiquitous we know them by just a single name ” Madonna, Tiger, Paris, Brad and Angelina, Britney.
Is it amusing? Yes, sometimes we pander to our baser instincts, including stories meant to amaze or entertain or titillate or just brighten our readers’ days.
Is it unusual? Things that go according to plan are far less interesting than when the unexpected occurs or the wheels fall off.
Critics of the news media often complain that we dwell on the negative and rarely run positive stories.
Believe me, we enjoy writing uplifting stories, like the accounts by reporter Robert Allen of Summit Cove student Jacob Poehl as he overcame a learning disability through his penpal correspondence with a Marine in Iraq and subsequently warmed hearts on national television with his tale.
But the truth is, bad news ” when things go wrong ” usually is far more attention-grabbing than good news.
As I like to say, no one cares when the plane lands safely. (But when the pilot crash-lands in the Hudson River and everyone survives, that’s undeniably a great news story in every sense.)
In the past, newspapers have experimented with publishing only positive stories for a period of time, only to have readers express boredom or fatigue by the saccharine coverage.
We cannot shy away from a story just because it reflects bad news; we would be failing in our duty to present reality ” no matter which interest group or public official we may irritate.
Summit Daily news editor Steve Lipsher can be reached at (970) 668-4621 or at email@example.com.
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