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What's Newsworthy

In judging what makes a story "newsworthy," there is no quantifiable set of standards, no real litmus test a story must pass to warrant coverage. As we've seen in addressing many such questions about news judgement from readers, the reality of determining newsworthiness is somewhat less precise than checking off a list of requirements.

Steve Salerno writes in today's Los Angeles Times about what he perceives is the prevailing -- and largely damaging -- method of news judgement –one that tends to "trendify" and overemphasize stories that are in fact, just anomalies. "In its most elementary sense, after all, newsworthiness is built on a foundation of anomaly -- the classic 'man bites dog' paradigm." (Or, "passenger bites man," as the case may be.) And this results in a confusion of what is actually relevant, and ultimately, newsworthy. Overreporting such stories -- such as the mad cow "hysteria" that never materialized in the United States, or the bird flu hysteria that is currently underway -- he explains, is intellectually dishonest because it incorrectly implies that the story has a higher level of relevance to the audience:

In an effort to heighten the import of what they report, journalists reverse the bargain with their audiences, as if to imply that all planes crash (or are about to), that all soldiers are killed in Iraq (or soon will be), that all corporate executives are unprincipled (but simply haven't been caught yet).
Salerno puts it even more bluntly, "…the news provides you with a high-resolution snapshot of what life isn't."

News outlets' seemingly endless coverage of stories such as Natalee Holloway's disappearance have generated a good share of criticism – largely because those cases of missing white women that are continuously highlighted tend to ignore the demographics that represent a much larger share of missing persons in the United States. The Washington Post's Colbert I. King got a letter from a reader who wondered why the case of Marion Fye, whose live-in boyfriend was eventually convicted of her murder following her disappearance, didn't get much media attention. Even in Fye's hometown newspaper – The Post – her name wasn't mentioned until her boyfriend was convicted of her murder: " 'Was it because Ms. Fye was 36 years old, a single mother of five children, unemployed and African American?' the reader asked. 'Who knows, but kind of sad, don't you think?'" In Saturday's Post, King examined the reasons why stories like Fye's don't get picked up. He doesn't attribute it to "disparate racial treatment," writing that "The Post has given extensive coverage to the murder of a 15-year-old youth in Southeast Washington and the arrest of another youth for an unconnected murder; both are grandsons of a prominent former member of the D.C. Council -- all African Americans."

But he does argue that it has much more to do with "how we decide whether one story is more worthy than another. How do we determine the merits of a case?" Which brings us back to the ambiguous nature of what is "newsworthy":

It's an amorphous term, but editors claim to know it when they see it. Unfortunately, in my view, that decision seems to boil down to what those of us in newsrooms, and not readers, care about.

And there's the problem. What draws the interest of people in the news business (what they like to read and write about) often bears little relationship to what people who live in communities like Marion Fye's care about.

In that sense, what newspapers deem "newsworthy" is not actually information that is most relevant in terms of its potential effect on readers' and viewers' lives, but what is most out of the ordinary.
It's because someone may have decided that a story like hers, of a woman nobody has ever heard of, won't have much significance to readers. It's because someone has concluded that there is nothing out of the ordinary about an adult black single mom walking out on her family. It's because such behavior is considered commonplace, too routine to warrant precious space.
So what is newsworthy to the audience? Do people follow the news solely to learn how what is going on in the world will affect them? Are they looking to read or watch a story that has little to do with their own lives, but is newsworthy because it is unique? The reality for most people is likely a combination of several motivations -- making the obligations of those who purvey the news that much more complicated. But one indicator of how audiences are responding to the news judgement that was once reserved only to the conference rooms at newspapers and television networks might be the fact that more are veering toward the Internet to get news, where to a greater degree the news judgement is one's own.