Who decides what’s news?

“How did Céline Dion’s backyard merit a front-page photo,” reader Michelle Guilmette asked this week. “Is there nothing else newsworthy out there?”

The day before, reader Bill Archibald emailed to inquire why the Star had devoted time and space to the story of Ludwig the cat who went missing at Pearson airport. Why, he asked, is a lost cat news?

In any given week, readers of the Star are apt to ask some variation of the essential questions at the heart of those emails: What is news? Who decides what the Star pays attention to — and what it ignores. What runs on Page 1 and on the home page of thestar.com?

Readers are quick to weigh in on what the Star covers as well as what it doesn’t cover.

I often hear from those of you who are disappointed that the Star did not cover an event in which you have a particular interest. For example, this week a reader wondered why he could not find news about the Princess Patricia’s Regiment anniversary celebrations in the Star.

Another longtime reader, a 70-year-old man who told me he was sexually abused in his childhood, wrote an impassioned letter imploring the Star to provide more coverage of the serious questions raised in the final report (released last December) of Ontario’s public inquiry into sexual abuse allegations in Cornwall.

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines news as “information about important or interesting recent events.” There’s broad scope in that for judgment about what is “important” — information you need to know — and what is “interesting” — stuff you might want to know.

Deciding what’s news is the core work of the media. As the renowned journalist and media critic Walter Lippman once said: “All the reporters in the world, working all the hours of the day, could not witness all the happenings in the world.”

Journalism is, by necessity, the art of selection, of deciding what matters and how to present that to audiences. While the Internet and the emergence of “citizen journalism” and social media have made it easier to connect and communicate within our global village, leading some to argue that journalism’s role as a “gatekeeper” is not necessary, there’s a case to be made that the barrage of accessible information makes the editor’s job of selection more vital.

The Star’s senior editors strive to provide a mix of what they believe readers need to know and what you might want to know. Clearly, on any given day, their news judgment won’t be in accord with that of all readers — or even all Star journalists. “Why is that news?” is a sentiment as apt to be expressed in the newsroom as in the public editor’s email box.

Indeed, such was the case with Thursday’s Page 1 play of Céline Dion’s $20 million new estate. For my part, I’m with reader Keung Lui who wrote: “I am happy for Céline and her 8-year-old son that they could afford a $20 million play house. But is this so-called news worth the front page of the Toronto Star? Don’t you have some real and more important news to report?”

How do journalists decide what is news? Is news simply determined by an editor’s whim, as expressed by the oft-cited cliché of the powerful editor who declares, “News is what I say it is.”

Textbook definitions of news that aim to teach aspiring journalists how to develop “news judgment” are of little practical use in the daily, and increasingly online, hourly, fray of deciding what’s news. For example, few editors ever consciously consider what one text tells us: “News is information about a break from the normal flow of events, an interruption in the unexpected” (practical translation: Dog bites man: not news. Man bites dog: news).

Stanley Walker, the famous editor of the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune defined news as the three W’s — “women, wampum and wrongdoing” (practical translation: sex, money and crime). That’s sexist, to be sure. How far off is it, though? Consider how those universal elements figure in many important and interesting news stories.

Journalism textbooks define the factors of newsworthiness as the impact of information on citizens, whether conflict and controversy are involved, timeliness, the prominence of those involved and proximity to the audience.

Novelty and oddity also factor in. Many successful editors, striving to appeal to readers, have long defined news as that which makes a reader say, “Gee whiz!”

For most journalists, deciding what’s news is instinctive, rooted in experience and their perceptions of what readers want. Practical factors such as space, reporting resources, the mix of hard news and softer features, the number of events competing for attention, as well as the availability of compelling photos to illustrate the news, are also at play.

All these theories aside, there is one overriding consideration that helps explain the daily puzzle of what is news: What’s newsworthy on a “slow news day” is far different than what you’ll read when a natural disaster happens or a parliamentary scandal breaks.

It’s a safe bet that Céline Dion’s water-park would not have made such a splash on the day a tsunami struck or there was a tidal wave of earth-shaking news.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on May 01, 2010.

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