By Donella Meadows
–August 29, 1997–
A newspaper near and dear to me recently ran a story about the accidental death of a 17-year-old. At the end was a sentence informing us that the young man once had a run-in with the law, unrelated to the tragic circumstances of his death.
His relatives and friends pelted the paper with letters asking why it was necessary to include that last sentence.
I wish the folks entrusted with informing the public would ask themselves that family’s question every day. Who needs this information? How does it affect its subjects? Is it news or is it gossip?
My ire is up on this issue, because of a small personal example, which happened while the complaints of that grieving family were still ringing in my head. I was negotiating to purchase two adjoining farms on behalf of a group who want to pool their resources and farm there. Suddenly I started getting calls from neighbors. “A reporter is asking us what you’re up to. If the paper is interested, it must be something juicy. So what ARE you up to?”
The parties to this transaction had long histories on the land. It was a slow, delicate conversation, its outcome uncertain. It didn’t need newspapers fanning rumors.
I called the reporter, explained that nothing was settled and asked that the story be delayed until there was some certainty. He came back at me with a long list of questions, most of which had no answers yet, a few of which were so pushy that I got mad and clammed up.
He was a good reporter; he didn’t quit. He exploited the journalist’s advantage — folks who don’t have experience with the press automatically try to be nice and answer questions, even intrusive questions. From each member of our group he wrung the name of another. The people he contacted called me afterward, upset that they had been grilled and frustrated by another unfortunate tendency of journalism: if you’d rather not talk, people assume you have something to hide.
“This is a private transaction among private folks,” I said to the reporter. “Why is it news?”
Because people are curious, he said. Rumors are already flying. Don’t I want them cleaned up?
Of course his questions fueled the rumors. And it was our job to clean them up, not his. But the important part of that response was the deep philosophy behind the news: people are curious. Something has to fill the space every day, that something has to sell, and what sells is curiosity-grist. Endless O.J. The murder of Versace. Sex, violence, sports stars, glamorous people, blood. Or, in a small town where blood and glamour are rare, the doings of the neighbors.
Good journalists, who think their job is to help citizens be informed participants in the democratic process, cringe at this stuff. But they’re losing the battle; just look at the papers, the magazines, and especially the TV. As the space is filled with entertainment, it contains less of what we do need to know, such as what political candidates actually do in office and from whom they take money. Or why our electricity supply is being deregulated and what that means for us and the environment. Or what sleazy handouts have been tucked into budget and tax bills and who put them there.
The experience of our group was unimportant. No harm was done. But, as always, when you are brushed personally by a big trend, however lightly, you start taking it seriously. When you feel at a gut level the difference between WATCHING the news and BEING the news, you remember that the folks in the spotlight are not puppets. After the news is over their lives go on. The blood is genuine and shed in pain. Suddenly you can’t go on watching in a trance while crunching Cheezits. You wake up with an appetite for real food and real news.
So I started thinking about my journalism students.
I teach them how to bear down and get a story, of course, the lesson of Watergate, the lesson that the reporter who wrote about us has learned well. I teach them how to get around denials and stonewalls, how to seek out other sources, how to catch people unaware and get them to blurt out things they later regret.
I also try to teach journalistic ethics, which is, believe it or not, a well-developed set of guidelines about not taking quotes out of context, not obtaining information under false pretense (such as failing to mention that you’re a reporter), not revealing sources that have asked to be anonymous.
But I haven’t taught enough about the basic decision that defines what is news.
What I should tell my students is: If someone appears to be doing something wrong, something hurtful to others, especially when it’s someone in public office, go for the story with all the journalistic cunning you can summon. Get to the bottom of it. Explain it so people can see how it affects them, even if it’s as dull as a savings-and-loan scandal. Go for the story when a public figure does something really good, too.
If private people don’t mind having a personal story told, and that story has some redeeming, inspiring, or useful lessons, tell it, but treat innocent self-revelations gently.
If private people are doing nothing wrong and nothing that your general readership needs to know, and they don’t want their story told, however fascinating to the curiosity-seeker in all of us, buzz off.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997