I decided to ask a deceptively easy question.
“What is news?” I asked the Glendale Community College class. “For instance, Kim Kardashian announced she'd like to be mayor of Glendale. Is that news?”
“NO!” came the cry from the majority of the class. “It's a waste of time! A waste of space!”
“Of course it's news,” I replied. “It's interesting.”
Gary Montecuollo, GCC's police chief, teaches the community relations class. The larger goal, he said, is to show how different parts of our city interact and interrelate. Since one of those cogs, so to speak, is the media, he asked me to come and talk about my job.
At first, I wasn't really sure what to talk about. Fortunately, Ms. Kardashian did me a solid. Despite the students' insistence that her political aspirations are of no interest, our paper’s Web traffic has spiked.
This, in turn, highlighted the tensions journalists often face: to inform but also entertain, to expose wrongdoing without being gossipy, and to balance between the important and the interesting.
“Do you know what makes something newsworthy?” I asked the class.
Silence. To be fair, I think I threw them off with the Kardashian question.
“In general, something is newsworthy because a news outlet broadcasts or publishes it,” I said. “In general, because we say it is.”
It sounds a bit recursive, I'll admit. But it is also true, and underscores the need for reflection and, often, self-restraint on the part of journalists. Sometimes the subjects of news stories would prefer we not write about them; other times they essentially beg for coverage.
And sometimes a story has so much importance, it must be printed despite whatever shame or embarrassment it causes. Other times, printing a small truth can hide a bigger lie, and journalists have to ensure they aren’t being played by their sources.
To exemplify this, I asked the class to break into several small groups. I gave them an ethical quandary — one this paper faced — and asked them what they would do.
Here's the dilemma: You discover that a woman has fallen from the top of a hotel downtown. Though it happened after midnight, a number of people witnessed the fall, and police are investigating it as a possible suicide.
Though police decline to say much of anything, you find the night manager of the hotel. The manager asks not to be quoted, but gives you the name of the woman and tells you that she requested “the highest floor available.”
With this information, I asked the class, what details do you choose to print, or do you print anything at all?
The debate was loud and spirited. Though many of the members of the class would have printed everything — including the name — a few decided it would be best to not print anything at all.
(What the paper did do, by the way, was to print a small story, a brief, stating that a woman had fallen from a hotel room, and that the matter was being investigated as a suicide. We did not name the woman or write any follow-up stories.)
Journalists, I said afterward, have to take care about which details to print. In general, few laws keep journalists from acting unethically. As such, it's incumbent on journalists to police themselves, to be transparent about their mistakes, and to print letters from people who may disagree with their actions.
The class seemed to understand. I am incredibly appreciative of their thoughtfulness and attention, and I hope they got something out of it. I certainly did.
DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at (818) 637-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.