Curious Louis: How do newsrooms decide the news?
What makes something news? It’s a question journalists ask themselves every day.
Whether it’s a breaking story or a scheduled event, news editors and managers have to decide whether or not to cover it.
After months and months of election coverage, Don Crozier was frustrated by what he saw as sensationalism and bias in the media. He worried that news had become too focused on entertainment or shock in the hunt for clicks and shares.
Crozier wanted to learn more about how news directors make decisions, so he turned to St. Louis Public Radio’s Curious Louis.
We looked into his question with some members of the St. Louis media industry.
Shula Neuman – St. Louis Public Radio
Shula Neuman is the executive editor of St. Louis Public Radio. The station has about 15 reporters, each with a distinct beat, who cover the daily news of the St. Louis metro area.
“We chose those beats several years ago because we felt like these are the issues that impact people’s lives the most in our region,” Neuman said
The station’s guiding principle is to help their audience become more informed citizens, she said.
“We try very hard to figure out what our audience wants, and that is like an ongoing struggle because we do believe if we’re not telling people news that matters to them, news that’s relevant, then we’re not doing our jobs,” Neuman said.
Chris King – The St. Louis American
The St. Louis American is an African-American-focused, weekly newspaper.
Chris King is the managing editor. He says paper's mission makes it easy to choose what the news is each week.
“Basically we cover positive news about the black community in St. Louis and we defend the black community in St. Louis from attack or assault of various kinds,” King said. “So it’s such a tightly narrow focus that we very seldom disagree over what is or isn’t a story. It’s really just becomes a matter of having enough people on hand to cover all the stories that we want to cover.”
King said staffers at the American prefer to highlight stories that could otherwise go unnoticed.
“If other media pick it up, we’re less likely to cover it because the story is already getting out there,” King said.
Gilbert Bailon – The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
With a staff of 120, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has the largest newsroom in the area. Gilbert Bailon is the editor of the daily metro newspaper.
“We have more information,” Bailon said. “We have more feet on the street, more people covering everything from sports to arts in our community than any other news outlet.”
Even with a big staff, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch can’t cover everything.
“We make a decision — what do we think are the most important, relevant stories that need the most coverage?” Bailon said. “And that changes day to day, and it also, in the print edition, depends on how much space we have.”
Newsrooms as a business
It turns out a lot of newsroom decisions come down to size — the size of the staff, the amount of pages in a newspaper or air time on the radio or television.
With the endless space of the internet, newsrooms can put out more stories than ever before. But with a limited staff, you still can’t cover everything. And a big staff costs big money.
Our listener Don Crozier questioned how the relationship between advertisers and sponsors influences newsroom decisions.
Neuman says not at all.
“We have what’s called a firewall between the underwriting department — which is to say sales, and also development — people who donate money to us, and they have no influence over our coverage, whatsoever,” she said. “And I can only speak for my newsroom organization because I know that at other news organizations that firewall might not be as thick as ours is.”
Bailon also spoke of a wall between advertising and the newsroom. He says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s coverage is not shaped by advertising. Instead, it’s an act of cooperation.
“We don’t tell advertisers, you’re going to get specific coverage. How we work with advertising is more like writing things for certain sections. If we do a special section in the digital area, it doesn’t influence our coverage,” Bailon said. “We do talk about, are there ways we can get more advertising, because that’s how the company makes money and we survive.”
For King, no wall between the money and the news is impregnable.
“Every news source has sacred cows,” said King. “The ones that say they don’t, [they] have sacred cows. You try your best to be responsible and fair but every news source, however mighty and powerful, has their sacred cows.”
Public trust in media
A recent Gallup poll shows that public trust in mass media has reached a historic low.
Thirty-two percent of those polled say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight points from a year earlier.
The editors seemed to agree that there isn’t much they can do to combat distrust, other than making sure their own newsroom maintains its journalistic integrity.
“If the public is going to prefer fake news over real news, I don’t think there’s anything people who make a business out of producing real news can do,” King said. “Orwell already covered this in 1984 – if you can get people to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, then you win.”
But he said that doesn’t stop him from continuing to produce what he calls ordinary, old-fashioned news.
“All I can do in my little piece of the universe is sit here and make my reporters come back with a source or a document to prove what they’re saying and if they don’t, we're not using the story, because that’s the way we’re supposed to do this thing,” King said.
Bailon said skepticism isn’t just aimed at media.
“I think there’s a general distrust of large institutions, period,” he said “We are among them; we are aware of that. So what we try to do is show people our work – try to show, here’s our sources, here is the verification of it – how we do our jobs is important.”
While the internet may contribute to the proliferation of so-called fake news, it also offers media outlets the chance to share more of their process with the audience. Transparency seems to be key to avoiding the appearance of bias.
“We post documents online; we have interviews that can be on audio so people can hear for themselves, to show this is how we’re gathering our work so they can be more trusting of what we’re trying to do,” Bailon said.
"Ultimately, we have to hope that by our not succumbing to exaggeration or to sensationalistic reporting or to spending too much time on one side of an issue, that we can maintain the trust of the public."
Media consumers have power, whether through their dollars or their feedback.
All of the editors encouraged audiences to engage with their local media.
King said the American listens. Though he said the paper mainly receives positive feedback, he also appreciates critiques.
“If we get criticism and you’re dead wrong about something or you’ve made a mistake in judgment, I like hearing that from people,” King said.
Bailon said reader interaction is a boon to his newspaper. But he worries that people don’t bother to contact them because they think they won’t be heard.
“I think there’s sometimes a misperception that we don’t listen to what people say. Not every email that comes in gets answered — we can’t,” Bailon said. “I don’t think it’s any different from any other corporation. If you send it to a bank or somewhere else, they can’t reply to every email.”
He says the totality of responses does have an impact.
Of course, that doesn’t mean a single voice or comment isn’t important.
“I remember when I first started in radio, somebody once told me that if I hear from one person about a story, it’s as though 10,000 people were responding because so few people actually take the time to reach out and make their opinions heard about us,” Neuman said.
So, if you want to know why a newsroom made a choice about a story, ask them.
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