Posted by: structureofnews | June 21, 2017

What’s News? Part Deux

Rolling Stone.pngWhat’s “news?”

I riffed on this way back in 2012, and about how newsrooms might need to rethink how they define what’s newsworthy – i.e., worthy of coverage – in a digital age that allows readers to approach information in completely new ways.

That question came back to mind after reading a very good speech by Amanda Hess, the NYT David Carr Fellow, about reporting on sexual assault. Her talk, entitled “The stories we tell, and the stories we don’t,” is a smart and provocative look at how journalists pick the subjects they cover, the characters they focus on, and how the issues are framed.

She uses as a poster child for getting all those things wrong Rolling Stone’s hugely discreditedA Rape On Campus” story.   (If you want the abridged version, just read the Wikipedia entry.)

As she notes, the story is skewed by all sorts of assumptions about what sort of sexual assault is newsworthy – those involving white women, on college campuses, and that are more violent, and so on – based, in all likelihood, on what journalists think is interesting and of public interest.

When we gravitate toward the most “shocking” stories, we necessarily distort reality. And as we do that, we send messages about what’s important. One of the messages we send is that the violence of rape isn’t violent enough. It’s only really newsworthy if the victim gets punched in the face, too.

There’s a broader theme that she’s pursuing, about the role of journalists in the choice of narrative about topics like this, and how we can distort public perceptions.  (For example, she notes that all the coverage of campus rape has led to the mistaken notion that college students are at higher risk of rape than non-college women.)

That’s another little myth that’s likely been communicated to the public and to senators alike by virtue of the sheer volume of stories that have been told about campus rape in recent years. Being a young woman does put a person at a higher risk of sexual victimization, but if you’re a young woman who goes to college, that actually helps to lower your risk.

There’s an argument for better data journalism – and more skeptical questions from editors – in there somewhere as well, but the broader question is about the tension between broad overviews and compelling narratives.

What would journalism look like if it accurately reflected the whole scope of sexual violence? We would see more working-class victims, elderly victims, some male victims, too. We would read stories about abuse committed not just by strangers or sadistic frat boys but by family members and committed partners, not just in elite colleges but in detention facilities. Why it is that we seem to be reporting so much on the sexual assaults experienced by white women in college, often to the exclusion of these other crimes?

There are, of course, great reasons for using narrative structure: after all, it can help bring readers into an issue and bring what could be dry statistics to life.  Narrative and anecdote are what cement the point of a story in readers’ minds, even if data is what makes the case.  And there are some practical issues as well about why we have to pick examples to illustrate broader themes – or are there?

It’s hard to argue against covering any individual victim’s story. But too many assaults happen for us to cover them all. We are always going to be looking for the story that “emblematizes” the problem.

—–

Some stories have to stand in for all the stories that will never be told. That is the compact journalism requires. But to do this responsibly, we must remember that every rape story is different. And no individual thinks of him or herself as an emblem.

Much of which is very true.  But while we don’t have to write in depth about every sexual assault, we can and should also think more broadly about the idea that we need to only focus on “emblematic” examples.

Homicide Watch is really the poster child for rethinking how issues like this could be covered.  Rather than decide which murders in DC to cover – and make decisions about which ones are more interesting or newsworthy than others – they just covered all of them, albeit at a fairly barebones level.  And there was certainly reader interest in lots of the murders they covered that would never have made it past the threshold of newsworthiness at a traditional news organization.

Is that the “right” way to cover homicides?  Possibly not.  But then again, is the “right” way to decide, based on some gut instinct, news judgment and reader interest, which murders to cover?  Possibly.  But as Amanda notes, you can also wind up with skewed coverage that way.  True, not all issues lend themselves to the kind of coverage Homicide Watch pioneered; but that’s not to say the only alternative is “emblematic” coverage.

There’s something to be said for some combination of all of those things – and this is certainly not an argument for surrendering news judgment.  But it is an argument for rethinking how we think about coverage, and what we can do, given all the new ways we can bring information and insight to readers.

 

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