Who decides what the news is?
September 20, 2007 1:26 PM   Subscribe

Who decides what's news?

This question is about seemingly peripheral stories that get coverage, not about the media's quest for the salacious, or about politicians' efforts to get the media to focus on the mundane.

Two specific times in the past week, news stories that seem to me to be unimportant have gotten relatively prominent coverage from a range of news organizations. This sort of thing happens all the time, but it's really jumped out at me in the past week.

Driving into work last Friday, I was surprised to hear Carl Kasell covering the New England Patriots spying scandal in NPR's 5-minute newscast. I stopped to get coffee, and CNN was covering it too.

Then earlier this week NPR gave up precious seconds of its national news summary to a story about a new California law restricting use of cell phones by teenagers while driving... and then CNN was on that story too.

What gives?

I can easily imagine the California law getting minor play from the LA Times; what the heck was it doing on the national news? Does some guy at the AP decide the order of news stories on the wire, and the rest of the media just follows suit? Is there a wider cabal somewhere? What's the deal?

This is a US-centric question, but the experience and wisdom of foreigners is welcome.
posted by ibmcginty to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In the case of NPR, I'd have to guess that these are some of their larger markets (and pools of supporters) and that has some sway over their editorial decision-making. When stories start showing up in lots of places, I usually attribute it to the the wires, or news outlets reporting on each other. I doubt there's any larger conspiracy afoot.
posted by jquinby at 1:45 PM on September 20, 2007

Carl Kasell, Lakshmi Singh, Norah Rohm (sp?), Jean Cochran, etc., not only read the news updates, they also choose what stories to include. On a recent episode of This American Life, Ira Glass talked about his father's too-brief career as a radio broadcaster. When Glass worked as a producer at NPR, his father asked him if he could read the news update. Glass had to tell him that the newscasters choose and read their own stories for the updates.

One thing that might interest you very much is the recent q&a sessions with NY Times editors. They discuss how they choose what to cover, how to cover it, what prominence to give it in the paper, etc. I'll try to find the links to the interviews and post them. The editors have ultimate control over everything that gets covered and how resources are allocated.

One thing I have noticed is the lack of political and policy news that gets covered in all forms of news media. Yes, there's the coverage of "Obama spars with Clinton" stuff, but that isn't really politics.
posted by HotPatatta at 1:51 PM on September 20, 2007

At newspapers the editor normally hands out assignments, although reporters with set beats can find a story to highlight or do a more in-depth piece on. The publisher will occasionally hand down story assignments, often an interest piece on a local business the ad department is trying to court.

At radio and tv, news is handled by the news director and writing team. They basically just read a lot of papers and try to get each story 15, 30 or a minute long, with sound bytes when available.. Larger networks and shows will also have a news team, and the anchor will have more say as well, although sometimes the producer or execs will hand them something they don't want to read.

Bizarre fluff pieces, in all media forms, are often the result of a slow news day or just frustration with rewording and reprinting/reading an ongoing issue for which there has been little change. There is a lot of pressure to fill column inches and time, and sometimes a reporter has to reach pretty far outside of their community for something interesting to research and write.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 1:59 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, news sources are can become afraid of alienating readers/listeners/viewers and especially advertisers, which leads to a lot of words with little content.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 2:00 PM on September 20, 2007

Yes, editors decide but ultimately you decide: it's the publisher's job to define the market (such and such profile of consumers matched with such and such profile of advertisers), then it's the editor's job to fulfill it.

It's not a US centric question: it works the same way in every open market. An editor has to guess what the targeted readers want to read. You can't run the risk to miss a story that a fraction of your targeted readership might be interested in and that your competitors will publish.
posted by bru at 2:24 PM on September 20, 2007

Editors decide. They watch what other news organizations are covering, and they apply their own judgment about what will appeal to their audience. How much coverage they give a story, and how prominent they make it, are parts of that decision. It's no more complex than that.
posted by jjg at 2:27 PM on September 20, 2007

I disagree with Bru. If the audience was the concern, how do we end up with stories like the one I saw on the BBC last summer about how people like to vacation in caravans? That did not come from the audience wishing that some authority figure would tell them what type of vacation they like--that was a press release from the caravan industry that they didn't even try to disguise.
posted by happyturtle at 2:32 PM on September 20, 2007

jjg is basically right, although the choice of stories is more than just what other news organisations are covering.

As an editor you consider running stories; stories brought to you by your reporters or correspondents; press releases put out by government, interest groups, etc; diary events; and general issues which may not have a story 'peg' but may also be worth covering. You look at them and decide how important, interesting and/or relevant they are to your audience. If you work in the commercial sector then you may also have to consider advertisers.

Some days you end up running stories you may not think are that great because there isn't much else around . Some days stories you think are good may end up being buried because there were other bigger stories.

It is up to the individual editor, but sometimes the fear of getting it wrong and missing a story can lead to a herd mentality.
posted by little apollo at 3:12 PM on September 20, 2007

FWIW: NPR has shifted toward a more "soft" news format recently. IMHO
posted by Carol Anne at 3:19 PM on September 20, 2007

NPR is constantly picking up quirky/odd stories from all kinds of newspapers. I read the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post daily, and pretty much every day during my 20-minute drive to work I hear at least one NPR story that I read in one of those papers a few days earlier.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:33 PM on September 20, 2007

The media covering irrelevant crap is not a new problem, nor is it surprising. It's almost like someone should write a book about it.

I'm an NPR listener, so I'm getting a kick out of these replies.
posted by Myself at 4:54 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: I do.

Sort of. My job essentially boils down to taking a long list of stories that have come into the newsroom today, from agencies, freelancers, the press syndication groups and our reporters, and deciding which of them go into the paper, and where they go.

This is how it works for a morning newspaper. The process is identical for all types of media, but timings are different:

1. The news is gathered. Reporters find stories, or are commissioned them by their editors, or working from a diary of news events, or assigned to cover something breaking, or sent on an errand at the whim of an executive, or chasing up a tip-off. Agencies send schedules of stories they're doing to the news editors.

2. There is a morning conference, where the news editor presents a set of senior executives with the news gathered so far, and what is anticipated. They will make judgements to set a rough framework for the paper's staff that day, where to assign staff and so on.

3. That all goes out the window.

4. There is an afternoon conference. A larger set of executives make firmer decisions about the paper. The news team say what stories have worked out, what has popped up, what has fallen through. Key stories in the paper -- the front page stories, the page leads, are decided upon.

5. Some poor chump (hi!) has to read through the rest, spiking stories that won't make it, elevating gems that have been forgotten and filling in all the rest of the space, (even if there aren't enough stories to go around. This is why Monday papers -- which are made on Sunday -- are always full of fluff like "a new survey reveals clowns are scary").

How do we make those decisions? Gut instinct. It's a really weird thing to describe, but you end up with a news palate, and get a feel for what will be something important, and what will not. The news comes in virtually unsorted, and you have to decide what its importance is.

You do this with a eye on what your audience wants, on what you personally think, and what you've done in the past. But in the end, it boils down to gut instinct. There are a lot of disagreements in newsrooms about this. "Why the fuck are we doing two pages of pish about this council initiative? Who gives a fuck?" and so forth.

Because there's no hard and fast rule as to what's big -- prostitute gets stabbed and killed one day it's 20 centimetres on page 11, another it's 40centimetres on page 5 with crying family -- journalists get jumpy. So they watch each other, all the time.

In newspapers, this leads to the horror time about 7.15pm when the editor has finished watching all the 6pm news bulletins and comes out of his office to say "I think we're underplaying story X. Tear up these three pages and move it forward". Earlier in the day, he hated it. But it's been second item on all the TV news so ... shit! ... we need to cover it.

The daily agenda is mostly set by newspapers. We come out in the morning, the TV follows our lead for the rest of the day, then we adjust ourselves a bit depending on the evening bulletins, and it all starts again.

Because of this, you can set the news quite easily. I've done it before -- found an odd little story that just personally pissed me off but nobody cared about, put it on the top of page three, and the next morning, hello! it's second story on the BBC website and leading the regional news.

It's all a crapshoot. Have you missed a story? Maybe! Are other good news sources doing it? Yes! Shit, we'd better do it too.
posted by bonaldi at 5:37 PM on September 20, 2007 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to all. Terrific and informative post, bonaldi.

"I think we're underplaying story X. Tear up these three pages and move it forward". Earlier in the day, he hated it. But it's been second item on all the TV news so ... shit! ... we need to cover it.

I've noticed this on sports coverage on ESPN-- like last week, on Monday, Wilbon said the Pats deserved mild punishment, but then on Tuesday, he explicitly said the punishment should be more severe because it had gotten so much coverage.

So the point is the circus, not the intrinsic merit or importance of any story.

Not always or exclusively, or anything, but all too often, that seems to be what's going on.
posted by ibmcginty at 6:42 PM on September 20, 2007

I work for a large cable news network and as far as cable news goes, the image a lot of times drives the news. A tire recycle facility will be burning out in the middle of nowhere, no one is directly threatened, but HOLY CRAP!! LOOK AT THE FLAMES AND SMOKE!! WHOA! same with car chases, britney. People SAY they don't like that stuff, but enough people REALLY do. and the ratings spike when there's a car chase - over and over.
posted by mrmarley at 9:09 AM on September 21, 2007

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