Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum

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I teach a journalism class as an adjunct instructor at USU, and every semester we spend some time talking about news judgement. How do media outlets decide what to report and what to leave on each day’s cutting room floor?

As much as the reading public would like absolute consistency in news decisions, there is no set formula. There can’t be. Life is too fluid. What’s newsworthy and what isn’t always comes down to a judgement call based a variety of factors at play at the time the decision is made.

It’s little different than the decisions parents face daily in child rearing. Sometimes ice cream is called for, sometimes discipline, sometimes looking the other way — which is not to say news professionals see members of the public as their children or somehow under our wing. It’s just the best decision-making metaphor I can think of right now.

Journalism schools across the country test students on a set of criteria for making news judgments, and sometimes every single one of these can factor into weighing whether to publish. I don’t give a test on this, but in my classes we discuss a wide variety of potential news stories and try to make decisions about them. By the end of this exercise, I think everyone sees how difficult it can sometimes be to act as a “gatekeeper” for public information.

If you Google “news values,” you’ll find a batch of colorful charts spelling out the standard criteria used by news organizations for making these often tough calls. The criteria vary slightly from chart to chart, but this is the basic list, in no particular order: magnitude, impact, relevance, prominence, proximity, oddity, human spirit, conflict, timeliness and currency.

“Currency” refers to what’s in the spotlight at the moment, what’s being talked about, debated, celebrated, mourned and hashed out by the human collective.

Here’s an example that, though kind of goofy, makes the point: The old story about Mitt Romney’s family traveling with their dog in a box on the roof of the car made a pretty big splash when Mitt was running for president. This was because everything about a presidential candidate has currency during a national campaign. That story would have practically no currency now.

This week The Herald Journal broke the story about a video from Ridgeline High School showing students cheering as a fellow student cut down a Pride flag in the school’s commons area, ironically put up for Diversity Week. This satisfied several news criteria: proximity (it happened in our community), magnitude (it went viral before we even reported on it), currency (many were talking about it), relevance (it came against a backdrop of bullying and acceptance issues at all schools), timeliness (it had just happened); conflict (that goes without saying).

At least one Cache Valley resident didn’t agree with this news decision. On the morning after the initial story appeared online, she wrote to complain, “As a parent I would just like to say I am mortified that you made this a front page story or printed it at all. Which ever side someone stands on or agrees with is beside the point. This puts our kids in complete danger. I would hope you would think of their safety before publishing something like this. You have made our children a target more than they already were because of this incident.”

I understand her fear but disagree. A strong argument could be made that not putting a spotlight on incidents like this exposes kids to more danger than sweeping them under the rug.

Putting people in danger is always a legitimate concern, though, so where does it fit in the news-judgement equation? Though there are no stop signs, if you will, on the news-criteria charts used in journalism schools, there is a widely referenced journalism code of ethics that does urge reporters and editors to seriously weigh the potential damage done by any news report. It reads: “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Although we didn’t deem the flag story as doing more harm than good, we did take the harm factor into account when it came to identifying the student who cut down the flag. There were a couple of videos of the incident available, but out of concern about exposing a juvenile to public ridicule — regardless of his action — we selected the more blurry video available so as not to provide a clear view of the subject’s face. It was also decided to cut about two seconds off the end of the video, where the student raised his head and walked away grinning, because this would have made him more identifiable.

Of course, many people saw the clearer video elsewhere, and everyone at Ridgeline High already knew who the student was, but the general public didn’t, and The Herald Journal felt a need to protect him from being confronted outside of school.

Finally, we did our best to put the entire affair in context, explaining the events that led up to the student’s action.

Many of you might disagree with the decisions made with this news story and subsequent developments at Ridgeline — either on the side of showing and telling more or showing and telling less. These are not easy calls, and the fact of the matter is there is no manual out there that spells out exactly what to do with each and every detail of all potential news situations. If there were such a guidebook, it couldn’t contain enough pages.

Like our aforementioned parent, all you can do is survey the situation, use the tools at your disposal, try to keep your wits about you, and act in the most effective and fair way possible.

Something that reassured me we made the right call on the Ridgeline video was a comment by the school principal in the aftermath. She said the reason Ridgeline decided to organize a Diversity Week celebration was in response to some disturbing behaviors occurring at the school, including hurtful remarks made toward some kids in the hallways.

“We’ve had some concerns come up specifically this year, but other years as well, that there was maybe a need to be more culturally sensitive,” she said.

OK, well, the Diversity Week incident is now behind us, and maybe the news stories will influence how Cache Valley moves forward. Who knows? Today is a new day with a new set of coverage decisions to make, and frankly I’m ready for some ice cream.

Note: Accompanying this column online is a news-judgement drill I conduct with students. Try your hand at applying the standard criteria — or any criteria you wish — to each scenario presented.

Charlie McCollum is the managing editor of The Herald Journal. He can be reached at cmccollum@hjnews.com or 435-792-7220.

Please be aware that Cache Valley Publishing does not endorse, and is not responsible for alleged employment offers in the comments.

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