Semi-Regular Feature: What’s News And What Isn’t ? (Part 1)
Here’s an actual example of the type of language I read in press releases just about every day, taken from one I just received:
“Walking has many health benefits, which makes National Walking Day the ideal time to kick-start your physical activity routine.”
They’re usually written in an engaging way, the press people are very nice when they call me on the phone to follow up and some of them are even creative in the way they try to localize a national release to the Greater Lafayette Area. But just a tiny fraction contain news that’s worth covering.
In general, WBAA will no longer be covering stories about fundraisers or ones about the “month of (insert name of cause here)” or “(such-and-such) Day”. I recognize this is a departure from some of the news department’s policies of the past, but it’s a change for the better.
Think about the above example, and simultaneously consider the word “news”. Do you need to be told walking is good for your health? Is there something NEW here to be covered? Of course not. And therefore, we will spend our resources on something else.
I will also say here that I’m not unsympathetic to the vast majority of the causes for which we get press releases — a great many of them do good in the world and are worth supporting. But for us to run stories on many of them would be to turn WBAA’s newscasts and feature stories into a publicity agency, which they are not.
While our mission as a public radio station is to serve the public interest, and it could certainly be argued that many of these organizations have similar aims, we decide what’s “news” in a different manner.
I was on a panel last week with a couple other media types from other organizations in the community and the moderator asked each of us to define “news”. I piped up and said “I want to say first that I think there are a lot of bad definitions of ‘news.'” And then one of the people sitting with me proved my point.
“News is what people are talking about,” the longtime news professional said. I’ve heard this definition before, and not infrequently. But it’s not the way we define news in public radio.
If it were, we could be led to believe that people were “talking about” a great many things, like the upcoming weekend’s fundraiser to benefit three-legged house cats, or somesuch event. Why do you think you see so many segments with animals and the preparation of recipes on commercial television?
HOW TO TELL IF YOUR STORY IS NEWSWORTHY
There’s a test that courts have long used to determine if a story is libelous — the same test which establishes the “truth will set you free” way to escape a libel charge. And it comes with an acronym that lays out what a story must demonstrate to avoid legal action — PICN. It stands for this:
Public Interest (Is this a topic the public would be interested in?)
Convenience (Is this information the press has access to that the general public doesn’t, and the press is doing a duty by bringing it to light on the public’s behalf, so they don’t have to go searching for it?)
Necessity (Does this information NEED to be aired? Does it have an informational purpose — especially one that is greater than other news that might fill the same space?)
And it turns out these criteria are a pretty good test of whether something is newsworthy, too. While there may be public interest in the latest cat video everyone is sharing virally, it still fails the other two tests. We try to fill our news and public affairs programming with topics and stories that pass all three of these tests.
So when I get a press release about the Walk To End Newscaster Bluster (a topic which is almost certainly worth supporting), I discard it.
All that said, don’t forget about the WBAA Community Calendar. Many of these same events can be aired, just not as part of a news story.