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LOCAL Commentary :: Media

The Ehrlich Report

A monthly column of political commentary. This month we raise the question: "What is news?"
The Ehrlich Report

What is News?

The proliferation of media for the spread of “news” forces the question: What is news? I put the question to mainstream journalists, independent media types, and to radical sociologists. Their answers, all serious, nevertheless reminded me of an old joke, originally a baseball story.

Three umpires are sitting around discussing their craft.

First umpire: “I call them the way I see them.”

Second umpire, with a slight note of superiority: “I call them the way they are.”

Third umpire, with great arrogance: “Gentlemen, they ain’t nothing till I call them.”

I think a lot of what gets reported in the news media is a consequence of one of these perspectives.

As I thought about what news is, I couldn’t help but address two questions. The first was “what isn’t news?” The second, “who decides what is or is not news?” I asked one African American reporter who was somewhat unhappy with the assignments she was given by her editor. “News,” she said to me, “was what my editor saw on the drive to work in the morning.” One thing is clear, an event is not reported in the news media if the editor/producer/advertiser/ publisher/ owner doesn’t want it to be published. Is it news if it is not published?

Several years ago, I organized a panel on the news media at a national conference. On the panel were a national radio talk show host, a network news producer, and a well-known newspaper editor. I asked them if poverty and homelessness in America was a news story. They all agreed; the answer was “no.” Tens of thousands of children go to bed hungry every night, but for them that is not a news story. They did agree, however, that a homeless man freezing to death on a city street–that is newsworthy. The difference seems to be that between a routine, everyday event and an event which is unusual, or infrequent, or which otherwise disturbs the “normal.” Social pathologies are normal, everyday events which we have learned to live with, and so they get to be ignored. However, there are “worthy subjects,” for example, a street crime perpetrated by a Black teenager will more likely be covered than white collar crimes by whites. What makes the story a worthy subject is that it reinforces a stereotype by its selective presentation. Events which mirror stereotypes and dominant group “superiority” –that’s news. Or at least that is one form of news. One form, that is, that serves to maintain the status of those already dominant.

Another distinguishing feature of mainstream news is its focus on “events” and not on “issues.” A number of local schools are torched. Those are events and they rightly are well-covered. But what about the issues? Were these schools set on fire as a protest against the ramshackle building? The inadequate teaching? The despair of the arsonists who saw no future for themselves? Aren’t these issues news? Of course, I say. But that begs the question.

There seems to be two competing views of the news. The “professional” view acknowledges that the news is what they report. What gives their reports legitimacy is, first of all, the fact that they share similar values and training. This socialized consensus deludes them, and their audience, into thinking that they must be doing something right. Their training, they claim, makes them capable of looking at events and issues “objectively.” Unfortunately, many news writers invoking objectivity equate it with “truth.” Obviously if objectivity were truth then there would be no reason to have both concepts. The more sophisticated reporters see objectivity as a state of not being influenced by their personal feelings. So for them, like the first umpire, news is what they can recognize because of their training and their supposed ability to suspend their personal feelings.

Many, more sociologically-oriented analysts, see events being identified as newsworthy because they are a disruption in the normal flow of events. The routine is not news, deviation from the norm is.

As for me, I have no definitive answer. I tend to be in the camp with that third umpire declaring that “it’s not news until I call it.” Unlike the mainstream journalist, I reject the notion of suspending my personal feelings or the very idea that it is even necessary to do so. So if the editor falls in the forest with no one around to hear her, I say “so what.”


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