What makes something a news story? And who decides?
They are questions that many readers — on blogs, in letters, in phone calls and in online comments — ask almost every day.
Why the fluff piece about a woman on a game show when you should be delving into the fishery? Who cares about some family’s prodigal dog when lives are at stake in the offshore?
Of course, news media try to cover all bases. It’s not an either/or scenario. Still, when a quirky or cuddly tale nabs a prominent spot, you can be guaranteed some newshound will think it supplanted an important exposé on political skulduggery.
“You’re just trying to sell newspapers,” an observer will often whine, as if wanting people to actually read your product is some sort of despicable vice. Covering stories that people crave, and making grey stories a little more colourful, is integral to the business of journalism.
And it’s sometimes hard to predict what things readers will take special interest in.
Dead animals, for some reason, are always the talk of the town. The story of the Bonavista hunter who bagged a wolf-sized coyote (or possibly an actual wolf) garnered hundreds of comments online. The severed coyote head found on Memorial University’s campus was also a big draw.
Even long dead mice — from the Viking era — lured thousands of readers onto The Telegram website on Monday. That was before Ashley Fitzpatrick’s story even appeared in the print edition.
Sometimes, the placement of political news can draw criticism.
A couple of bloggers recently questioned the newsworthiness of Jim Bennett’s angry phone message — specifically, Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy’s indictment of same in the legislature last Thursday.
The media, say critics, were duped by the Tories into covering their little distraction at the expense of more important news.
First of all, how was this incident not news? Liberal MHA Jim Bennett left a snarling message with Advanced Education Minister Joan Burke’s staff, calling them a bunch of “idiots” and threatening to vilify them on “Open Line” if they don’t help one of his constituents. Bennett had been trying for a couple of days to arrange transportation for a person needing chemotherapy.
On top of that, Kennedy was now conducting a show trial on the floor of the House of Assembly — a month after the message was left.
Whether it was a distraction is beside the point. It’s news. In fact, the smoke screen angle is itself part of the story. The reporter can’t conclude as such without editorializing, but the people he quoted certainly can — and did.
The primary goal in all cases is fair and accurate reporting. Keeping a cool head. Otherwise, exuberance can lead some journalists to completely cross the line.
Take Mike Daisey.
On Friday, the U.S. public radio show “This American Life” ran a lengthy retraction of an episode in January in which Daisey reported on his travels to a FoxConn manufacturing plant in China.
The plant produces Apple iPads and iPhones, and Daisey claims to have discovered oppressive working conditions, with dirt wages and scare tactics against unionizing efforts.
The story seemed plausible, given that most of Daisey’s background facts checked out. And working standards in China are hardly top-notch.
But when another journalist tracked down Daisey’s interpreter, he made an astounding discovery.
Daisey had completely fabricated much of his story. There were no armed guards at the factory gates, as he had described. There was no old man who swept a gnarled hand across Daisey’s iPad in amazement. Many of the anecdotes were simply made up. Daisey, who now performs a one-man stage show based on his experience, says his story was always meant to be a blend of fact and fiction.
Too bad he didn’t see a need to point that out in the first place.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.