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04 September, 2015

TRUST ME, NEWSPAPERS DO NOT PUBLISH NEWS STORIES DESIGNED TO SELL PAPERS...IT SIMPLY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY

I have always been uncomfortable with perception, especially as it pertains to public perception. The trouble is that it would be taken with a grain of salt if it were not for the destructiveness that wrong perceptions of people and situations can cause. What is amusing is that people are convinced of the truth of their perceptions and act on them accordingly, despite the inaccurate and incomplete way the brain works to form these perceptions. The sad reality is that most perceptions are very distorted by the minds of those who generally have axes to grind.

Because of my professional background, the public perception that sticks in my craw the most is the commonly held belief that newspapers publish stories to "sell papers".

In a recent study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 80 percent of the public said  they believe "journalists chase sensational stories because they think it will sell papers, not because they think it is important news."  Another 85 percent of the public believed that "newspapers frequently over-dramatize some news stories just to sell more papers."
Editor Dick at his news desk, circa 1968.

I have to ask, did the study lump all "newspapers" -- daily, weekly, monthly, national, regional, local, broadsheet, tabloid, including trash and gossip rags that blatantly sensationalize stories that attract attention when displayed in the news rack?  That important piece of information was not addressed in the release of the study; neither was the exact wording of the study questions requiring only "yes" or "no" answers i.e. "Do you believe..."

Take it from someone who has been an editor of four daily newspapers in Canada and an 11-year member of the Canadian Press News Study Team in two provinces...Both of the concluding study statements are based on public perception, which is completely unfounded and misleading.  And I'll tell you why.

There are four basic departments in every newspaper, big and small -- news, advertising, circulation and production.  The departments work independent of each other.  As a managing editor, it was always my practice, however to meet with department heads from time to time to get a feeling for how our product was being accepted/perceived in the community.  If we were falling short in the presentation of news, I wanted to hear about it and was prepared to implement corrective measures if warranted.  But never, and I repeat never, was I influenced or motivated to run a story just to sell papers.  Likewise, the rise and fall of newspaper circulation was never reflected in my pay cheque.

Admittedly, more than once I heard: "That was a good story you guys ran the other day.  I don't pick up your paper every day, but if you continue that kind of coverage I'll become a regular subscriber."  Conversely and historically, when someone does not agree with what they have read in a newspaper, their first knee-jerk reaction is to cancel their subscription, thinking that they are sending a message.

I, like most editors, knew all too well the folly of printing agenda-driven news stories.  Any good editor has his/her ear to the ground and is cognizant of the news requirements of the community and the public's right to know.  What really turns an editor's crank, is a legitimate breaking news story that has potential to scoop the competition and win readership favor.  A story that will really grab attention is the ultimate goal, not the possibility of selling a few extra copies of the paper.

Of course, any managing editor worth his or her salt knows full well the value of giving their advertising and circulation departments a lively, quality news package that will enhance ad sales and circulation marketing promotions.

Newspapers make their money from display and classified advertising and paid subscriptions which cover the cost of delivery.  Extra individual on-the-street sales of a particular edition in any given day are negligible and a mere pittance in the overall financial scheme of things.  People simply do not selectively buy newspapers because of a spectacularly exaggerated news story or one that is colorfully illustrated -- and editors know that.  Editors, rather, are constantly pre-occupied with news judgment and news play in their papers.  Always faced with snap decisions based on looming print deadlines, they win some and they lose some.  The armchair reading public does not always agree with the tone of reportage, the placement of news articles and (heaven help us) oversight of what is believed to be a worthy event or pet cause.  These are facts of life in all forms of media.

While editors do not intentionally set out to sell papers, you can bet your boots that they are subjected to economic pressure. I lost count of number of times I was threatened with the cancellation of advertising because of disagreement over certain news coverage.  I have had one hundred dollar bills thrown on my desk by a disgruntled member of the public wanting to suppress a certain court story involving a family member and I have been threatened with legal action, once by a judge and another time by a police chief. I have had meals out with my family interrupted by overly zealous proponents of political agendas.  I have refused liquor delivered to my home by a candidate hoping to win my support at election time. The Rt. Hon. John George Diefenbaker objected to my handling of several news releases from his office and went so far as to say that he would have me fired next time he saw the newspaper's owner, his "good friend" Lord Thompson of Fleet.  Dief also complained that I was giving inappropriate coverage to the Liberal candidate in the federal election of 1972.  The Liberals, on the other hand, insisted that I always gave Diefenbaker top billing.  Perception rearing its ugly head once again.
John Diefenbaker was extremely congenial, especially
after I published a tribute to him on his 80th birthday.

It all went with the territory.  While experiencing the extremes of frustration and amusement, I did not let such incidents deter me from doing the job that was expected of me.  I had an intense sense of purpose in those days.  If I could not stand the heat I could always get out of the kitchen which is exactly what I did in due course, just a little the worse for wear but a much wiser human being.

An editor's responsibility is always to present the day's news in the most balanced and fair way possible. The mandate is unbiased, fearless recording of fact, but it must be demonstrable fact with responsible sources to support it so that the public can arrive at an informed consensus.  Accuracy is fundamental.  Reporters are constantly reminded to refrain from incorporating personal opinions in their news copy.  Accurate back grounding and authoritative interpretation are essential to reader understanding of complicated subjects.  Editorial and op-ed pages are reserved for the sole purpose of opinion commentary and letters to the editor.

Ask any veteran reporter and I guarantee they will confirm that they have never been instructed to write a story designed to sell newspapers and their copy has never been edited for that purpose.

I quote here from the Canadian Press Style Guide that is followed religiously by all reputable and main stream media in Canada:

"The question of what news is can often be answered objectively -- disasters, major political developments, serious crimes -- but just as often subjectively.  The experience and training of reporters, rewrite staff, desk editors and supervisors are the front line of news judgment.  They must be familiar with the interests and concerns of Canadians, both nationally and regionally, as reflected in the news pages of daily newspapers...

Good taste is a constant consideration.  Some important news is essentially repellent.  Its handling need not be."  Note: CP is our national news-gathering co-operative covering important Canadian news for its more than 100 daily member newspapers and, through affiliated companies, for broadcasters and a wide variety of magazines, special-interest publications and private organizations wanting instant information.

Let me explain briefly how a newspaper news room is structured and how it works in reality.

Reporters and correspondents do a lot of research work in order to gather the facts. They must also find out which news is important and worth reporting and which information can be left out.
A newspaper employs various kinds of reporters. A beat reporter covers certain issues and topics, mostly over a longer period of time. He or she may report on a crime and the trial that follows. An education reporter follows topics related to schools and universities. Other beat reporters cover topics like fashion or science. Then, of course, you have the ever popular sports pages and writers that specialize in hockey, baseball, football and basketball.  General assignment reporters cover any story that they are assigned by the editor. Sometimes reporters spend months trying to get stories on corruption and other wrong doings. Stringers, as they are called, do not work for a paper, but send them stories regularly for a set fee.

Large newspapers often have offices in other cities or countries . Foreign correspondents work in these offices and can send news stories to the newspaper very quickly.  Newspapers cannot have reporters and correspondents everywhere in the world. They get part of their information from news or wire services like the Canadian Press. Wire services collect information from reporters all over the world and relay it via computers and satellites to newspapers. Among the largest news services are United Press International and Associated Press (both USA). Other services include Reuters (UK), Agence France Press (France) and ITAR-TASS (Russia).

So, if I haven't convinced you by now of newspaper professionalism and the fact that there is no correlation between news coverage and the almighty dollar, I guess I never will.  I fully expect also, that there will be those who will say that I am naturally biased on this subject...and I readily admit that is the case.  False perceptions and con cocked studies offend what is left of this old editor's integrity and sense of loyalty to newspapering.  Equally troublesome is the popular tendency to blame "the media" for all that is wrong in society today. 

All I can say by means of conclusion is that the truth often hurts, but don't shoot the messenger!

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