What is news and what is just words?

  I teach the freshmen in  my 201-1 Reporting & Writing classes at Northwestern University about the traditional definitions of newsworthiness and the judgment calls that help reporters and editors decide what they should cover when, where, how and why . Lately I am thinking I should throw these rules out the window. Because as the media landscape gets more and more crowded and the audience have more options of places to retrieve information from, it feels as if so many of us from mainstream media to citizen journalists and bloggers are flying by the seat of our pants.

It seems as if the filters are gone. The outtakes are viral. The personal observations you would have left in your notebook a few years ago are now the front page story. Everything goes. Grab a camera, a recorder, shoot a video, make a slideshow, blog your impressions. No discernment. Do anything and everything you can. Just do it. POst it now. No need to polish it for later. When anyone can have an audience on a social network site, why work all day to gather and vet the info for 10 inches of printed text in a newspaper?

As the lines between audience and media have become porous and each sector has grandly influenced the style, content and sourcing of the other, there is the possibility that all we end up with is chaos. The worst case scenario heeds what I call “Chicken Little Journalism,” when rumor and third-hand anecdotes become urban myth legitimized by their ubiquity and repitition. News can become like a printed or digital version of the childhood game of telephone. The best case is that stories become deepened by inclusion of sources and what we end up with is  a democratization of news that truly informs all, and is less top-down than all-around.   

I am amazed by how much time some bloggers spend sending out information and commentary and I wonder when they do the rest of their lives. And then I remember what it is like to work on a newspaper and spend days and weeks on a story and have it either shift completely in focus or be killed. Sometimes it really did feel like an editor killed a story. The possibility of creating a narrative from nothing had died. So having an outlet for all that legwork would be great.   

All I know is that I am in the fortunate position of having seen thousands of talented and  inspired writers and reporters at the beginnings of their careers, instructing them in claases on how best to tell a story, how best to harness that creativity with accurate information and how to move past just typing words to creating a product that makes an impact.

As the elements of newsworthiness change and how we tell stories becomes more layered with the introduction of more tools across more platforms, we have to keep asking what is news and what is just words. Or images. Or audio. We have to keep asking why we focus on reportting and writing on this trend and not that, and why interview this person and not her. Because in the end it is not just about filling up time and space and airwaves with content of any kind. It is about filling up time and space and airwaves with content that is worth our time.           

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1 Comment

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One response to “What is news and what is just words?

  1. Rosemary Armao

    Well put. I’m teaching a beginning reporting and writing class these days and find that I am having some trouble defining for them exactly what I mean by news anymore. The line between it and entertainment has blurred, as have the lines between news and ads and mainstream and tabloid news. Narrative is an acceptable way to enliven interest in newscopy (but maybe not for investigative reporting, some believe); injecting opinion is not (except in reviews and editorials and op-ed pieces and analyses…etc.) Then we come to blogs in the midst of all this mixing of forms. You address the worst of them, the ones that are sloppy, unchecked and baseless. Right, they cannot be compared to good journalism. But plenty of bad journalism with all these faults have gotten printed over the years and they were no argument for condeming the newstory as a whole. I have a list of blogs bookmarked that I love reading. These are wonderfully written, more intimate and vivid than even many magazine stories. They raise new issues or new angles on stories covered elsewhere. They use humor, varied points of view, and bold statement. Aren’t there lessons in this for all journalists? I’m not pretending to know the answers, but I did want to warn you I’m directing students to everywoman to see and consider this posting. Say more!

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