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Editor’s Weekly: Test your news judgment: Martin Luther King and Miley Cyrus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2013: Dear Beaconites -

In 1963, the Washington Post deployed some 60 staffers to cover the March on Washington. In the deluge of ink the next day, the words "I have a dream" appeared only once, in the fifth paragraph of a roundup on Page A15. That monumental lapse of news judgment drew regrets this week from Post associate editor Robert Kaiser, who covered the march as an intern. His column came to my attention through Don Marsh, who exercises impeccable news judgment as host of St. Louis On the Air.

Spotting what's truly historic in real time is not nearly as easy as it seems in hindsight, either for journalists or the public. In 1963, official Washington was preoccupied with fears that the march would turn violent. Reporters had trouble recognizing what was before their eyes -- a massive, peaceful milestone on an epic quest for justice.

Missing the significance of something like the Dream speech is every journalist's nightmare. I suspect that many news organizations shared the error. This week, news media made up for the mistake, giving homepage, front page and airwave prominence to retrospectives on a moment we now all recognize as pivotal. In some cases, the coverage appeared right alongside videos of Miley Cyrus. Yes, it's hard to discern what's significant in the news, but some news organizations aren't trying very hard.

This week, the Beacon was a Miley-free zone. On the anniversary of the March on Washington, our homepage included Bob Joiner's B-List look at the role of buses in historic events. Linda Lockhart shared thoughts from members of our Public Insight Network about progress or lack of it since the march. Earlier, we looked at the march and the Jefferson Bank protest in St. Louis as part of our series on the continuing impact of events from 1963.

Bob also reported this week on "For the Sake of All," a project that looks at the health and well-being of African Americans in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The work will lead to a community conference on how to improve prospects in education, health and economic security. The idea is to explore not only how disparities hinder African Americans, but also how that affects the entire region.

This week, the first of six reports asked: "How can we save lives -- and save money -- in St. Louis?" Projects such as this may not create huge buzz or achieve immediate historic significance. Yet the significance of the findings to the future of the region is clear.

Does it matter if the combined forces of economics, technology and the human attention span propel Miley Cyrus to the top of CNN's homepage? That in itself would be of little concern if serious reporting had its own big fan base and bright future. Nonprofit news organizations such as the Beacon are finding new ways to secure both. But the truth is that journalism is at its own pivotal moment, and there's no guarantee of success.

Our prospects hinge in part on the clarity of our own news judgment -- on our ability to produce work that you find valuable and that helps our region find a better future. Prospects also hinge on your appetite for substantive news and your willingness to step up and support it.

In 1963, readers had a right to expect journalists with better judgment than to  relegate Martin Luther King's words to Page A15, paragraph 5. Now, people have a right to expect journalists they can trust to sort the wheat from the chaff. Technology makes many sources available for passing along news, including your friends. Let's hope we can sustain news coverage that feeds the flow with more than videos of Miley Cyrus.



Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.

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