Gongol.com Archives: December 2021

Brian Gongol

December 28, 2021

News No tolerance for under-reporting

Practically every news organization maintains some version of an "evergreen file" -- a collection of stories that have been prepared in advance for distribution or publication on a slow news day. The evergreen file is especially useful during summer holidays (like Independence Day) and at the end of the year, when there are still column-inches or minutes of airtime to fill, but not a great deal of newsworthy activity happening in the world. ■ One standard entry in the evergreen file is a roundtable discussion of "the most under-reported stories of this year". It's a perfect way to fill time, since it permits the participants to expound on subjects that interest them most -- and to editorialize freely under the cover of offering analytical media criticism. These discussions certainly can be enlightening, and in many cases those who choose to name a story as the "most under-reported" are being authentically thoughtful about the shortcomings of coverage. ■ But the practice also highlights the fact that coverage is an editorial decision. To devote minutes or column-inches to coverage to a subject is to decide it is worth the attention of the reader, listener, or viewer. To deprive a story of that coverage is a choice, as well. ■ It's hard to say this in a time of atrocious news-media economics, but editors and news directors need to apply the Eisenhower Matrix to their coverage: Not just covering what's urgent, but also what's important. Urgency is the easiest way to rank-order newsworthiness (that's how we get "If it bleeds, it leads"), but that doesn't mean it's a good way to produce quality journalism. ■ If a subject is important but not obviously urgent, it needs the help of compelling writing. The quality of writing -- both for print and for the ear -- makes an enormous difference to the audience's level of interest in a story. Paul Harvey has been gone for more than a decade, but some broadcasters still place enough value on his storytelling ability to air segments recorded decades ago. (It helps that many, if not most, of his "Rest of the Story" episodes were themselves "evergreens".) ■ Writing compelling stories around important-but-not-urgent topics is both a skill and a talent. As with any other storytelling style, some people have abundant natural talent that can't be duplicated. Yet some of the skill can be taught, and much of it can be practiced. Upton Sinclair and Nelly Bly made their names by dragging important stories into the public view -- and journalists like Scott Pelley and editors like Anne McElvoy are masters of the craft today. But many, many more of them are needed. ■ Even if it weren't the catalyst for a convenient evergreen piece, there would still be cause for discussion of the most under-reported stories. Important stories often lack the convenient touchpoints that make them easy to fit into a news budget that depends upon timeliness. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo, and much of what passes for "news" is really just reporting on events (things that happen without materially changing our understanding of anything) or information (which is often material worth knowing, but which tends to lack either urgency or importance). ■ The significance of news is that it often doesn't appear to us fully-formed nor served up on a platter in a press release. Aside from the obvious banner-headline stories, news is a matter of judgment about what's important. That's why editorial judgment means so much -- news usually must be dug up, and that digging has to be directed from somewhere. But once the digging yields results, the presentation matters, too. A few bones found in a bluff might not mean much to the ordinary person, but a dinosaur named Sue tells a story worth reading. ■ Such is the dynamic of telling the world's news: The really important subjects may be neither obvious nor seemingly urgent, which is precisely why the skill of editorial judgment and the craft of high-engagement storytelling matter so much. If important stories are going under-reported, then energy and resources need to go into increasing the skills required to keep them from being overlooked.

@briangongol on Twitter