19 March 2012

What makes news? #nlpoli

Sometimes you have to wonder why does one story make the news while another doesn’t.  Good example:  Jim Bennett’s asinine telephone call to Joan Burke’s constituency office.

Telegram blogger Geoff Meeker smacks the local media for covering the story in the way they did:
It wasn't even a valid news story. It was manufactured. The PCs sat on Bennett’s voice message for five weeks, until it was advantageous to toss out the bait. They played the media like a fish. 
And this is a criticism directed at all media, because they all played it at the top of their news, whether it was TV, radio or print. Meanwhile, as a direct consequence, more important stories – such as NDP Leader Lorraine Michael’s vital question about mercury poisoning in Lake Melville – were pushed back, diminishing their importance.
All fair comment.

In this case, the discussion is about what newsrooms chose to cover.  The usual comment from the people in newsrooms – editors and reporters alike – is that there is way more stuff going on than they could ever print or broadcast.


But that doesn’t get at the question of why they might chose one story over another.

And what about cases where newsroom didn’t cover a story at all? 

There have been a couple of those stories related to energy policy that we know about:  one from April 2008 and another from September 2009.

But then there was another type of story, the one where the locals didn’t report it as news until the mainlanders did it first.

This is a story like the one about an education minister mixing and meddling in the appointment of a new president for the university. Until the story appeared in a national newspaper, no one locally reported it.  Sure there were columns in the Telegram about it but no one reported the story as news.

It’s not like the mainlanders got the story first and scooped all the locals.

Or how about the deliberate breach of the province’s privacy laws in the case of the Craig Westcott e-mail. Telegram editor Russell Wangersky brought up the e-mail in his Saturday column. The context was a discussion of the way the current provincial government selectively interprets the access to information and privacy law in Newfoundland and Labrador.

All the news media in the province had the story at the same time.  As Wangersky recounts the episode:
But first, a little history: Craig Westcott was hired in late 2010 as the communications spokesman for the provincial Liberals, a move that generated considerable ire inside provincial Tory ranks. 
In fact, such ire that a provincial cabinet minister, Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien, went on VOCM to denounce Westcott, and to reveal that Westcott had written an intemperate email to then-premier Danny Williams' communications chief, Elizabeth Matthews, in February 2009. O'Brien said the email had been discussed at the cabinet table. 
The email questioned whether Williams had mental [health] issues, and, after O'Brien's VOCM comments, was released in its entirety.
Every newsroom went first with the e-mail story, exactly as the government intended when the Premier’s Office decided to release it.

One of the reasons why the current provincial government can get away with its selective application of the law has an awful lot to do with the consequences.  Basically there aren’t any. 

Sure they might be on the receiving end of a few sharp words in an editorial or a column.  The thing is, though,  that fewer people pay attention to news media these days than they used to.  And the ones who do likely don’t scan all the columns to finds tidbits of information like ones about the latest illegal actions by their own government.  They just don’t see the news that might wind up on the opinion pages instead of the news pages where they belong.

What the public gets instead are stories like the Bennett or Westcott ones where the government’s interpretation of things often appear  unfiltered.

What makes it into print or on the air isn’t always the story, let alone the whole one or the real one.

- srbp -