Readers frequently write or call to ask why we didn't cover an event or why we published a story. Often these aren't neutral inquiries — they're frequently complaints about news judgment.
The tone of these messages seems to have changed in recent years. Now, rather than simple inquiries, messages are infused with angst — "disgusted," "disturbed" and "disappointed" frequently appear. But ultimately, readers are simply curious about why certain stories are news worthy and others aren't.
The answer is easy: there is no easy answer.
In most newsrooms, journalists weigh ideas and issues to present stories with sincerity and balance. News judgment is laden with nuance — what is covered, how it is covered and how it is disseminated. This subjective process opens opportunities for praise and criticism. Before you get worked up about about media bias, remember: both journalists and readers are human and thus are prone to individual biases. (This dichotomy is likely the source of many claims of media bias.)
News judgment is a delicate craft. A good editor appreciates what experienced journalists consider to be important and what readers consider to be relevant; the combination should result in a meaningful report. Some stories are simple, others are complicated. But for reliable news organizations, it's rarely — if ever — a conspiracy.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the news as "a report of recent events," "previously unknown information," "something having a specified influence or effect," and "material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast."
I've long considered this definition: News is the cultural, social, political and economic phenomena and events that define how we live. (Perhaps Merriam-Webster needs to update its dictionaries).
An advantage for working in the Catholic press is that we start with a fundamental truth, as revealed in the Gospel and as taught by the Church. Diocesan publications have the added responsibility of supporting a bishop in his pastoral care of the people. While some journalists might find these foundations to be troubling, they can be liberating. When we make news judgments, we consider ...
• Is the story consistent with Church teaching?
• Is the story consistent with the archbishop's priorities?
• Will the story help the readers' faith formation and relationship with Jesus?
• Will the story resonate with our Catholic community? (Remember, it's a big Church and broad audience.)
• Do we have the resources (human, financial and space) to tell the story?
Nos. 1-3 are generally easy. The staff is well formed in the faith and has easy access to many theologians, liturgists, canon lawyers and other experts. We routinely meet with archdiocesan leaders, including the archbishop to discuss how to communicate his priorities. Generally, anything that meets the first two points satisfies the third.
The last two are the trickiest. Not all stories resonate with all readers, so we strive to provide a mix in each issue and in the long-term. There's no expectation that readers read — or agree with — every story, but variety helps in general formation.
Like all news organizations, our resources are finite. With three writers and one photographer, we cover 11 counties, home to more than 500,000 Catholics, 181 parishes, 139 schools and scores of Catholic ministries. In part, news judgment means knowing where to invest these resources to provide the most value to readers.
One of the best parts of practicing advocacy journalism is that we're free to be biased. In our case, we're biased toward the teaching of the Church and the priorities of our shepherd. That foundation makes the job enjoyable and a bit easier, even though readers sometimes complain about stories
Seldom do we respond to inquiries about why we covered or didn't cover specific stories. There are just too many possibilities — each reader might have her/his own idea of what should be covered.
But we always welcome ideas — pitches, as they're called in the craft — even if they don't develop into stories. Pitches help us gauge what is important to readers. If nothing else, that makes our job just a little easier.
Phillips is director of publications for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. RELATED ARTICLE(S):AN EDITOR'S LIFE | A Twitter feed belongs in print