Josh Bergeron: Transparency for local news, too

Published 12:13 am Sunday, February 24, 2019

While the methods by which local news is delivered to readers or viewers have changed with the rapid spread of smartphones and the popularity of social media, one thing has largely stayed the same.

And that’s certainly not a bad thing.

News outlets — from newspapers to TV news — largely use the same set of values now to judge how much prominence to give a story as they always have. Those values involve things such as a story’s impact, timeliness and proximity.

In early January, I wrote a column talking about the meaning of some common newspaper words such as “lede” — usually the first or first few sentences in a story — and editorial — a word used to refer to an opinion piece that represents the opinion of the newspaper. But informing readers further about the ways in which we operate will only improve the relationship we have with readers. It’s our job to provide transparency about what’s happening in the community.

So, it’s only natural to provide transparency about the news gathering process, too.

While we don’t usually run down a list of news values before pursuing a story, we try to keep them in mind. Sometimes a story may only be newsworthy because of one of the news values.

Though, all of our staff stories tend to be local. If the story doesn’t occur in our coverage area, we generally won’t devote a reporter to it, but we do use wire services such as the Associated Press to publish stories about newsworthy stories occurring elsewhere.

Some stories are newsworthy because of several news values. You’ll see many of those above the fold on the front page.

We use news values both to decide whether to pursue a story and as a guide about where to place it in the newspaper. If you see a story above the fold on the front page, it’s among the one or two most newsworthy stories in that edition.

Some people use different words or add an additional item to the list, but news values on which we operate are generally as follows.

Impact

How many people are influenced by a particular event or trend? As one might expect, a story is more newsworthy if it affects a larger number of people.

Timeliness

When did the event happen? An event that occurred recently — within a day or two, for example — is more newsworthy than one that happened decades ago or will happen months in the future. Though, the date on which it occurs does not necessarily preclude someone from writing a story about it some time before or after.

Prominence

A person who is a public figure — whether through an election, that he or she runs a large business, maintains a large social media following or another factor — has higher news value than an “average Joe” or “average Jane.” So, we would write a story about Salisbury-born Zion Williamson visiting to play basketball at a local court, but would be unlikely to do so about someone living in Durham who isn’t well-known.

Proximity

Is the event or trend in Salisbury or Rowan County — our primary coverage areas? Or, is it nearby? Closer is better.

Novelty or bizarreness

How unique is the event or trend in question? The well-known example is dog bites man vs. man bites dog. Usually, we wouldn’t write a story about a dog biting a man, but the other way around is certainly strange and, therefore, more newsworthy.

Conflict

This one is self-explanatory. Examples include, public anger about a topic — school closures and consolidation in the Rowan-Salisbury School System are an example. War, shootings or strife are other examples.

Currency

This one is a bit less finite, but it’s understood to be topics or issues that are currently the focus of public concern.

So, for example, every school closure or consolidation story may not have an element of conflict, but it’s something a broad swath of our community cares about.

An example of news values in action is a story on our front page today about a judge striking down constitutional amendments to cap income tax and require photo ID to vote.

The story fits with our desire to focus on local news because, despite the fact that did not happen here, it will affect everyone who lives in Salisbury and Rowan County directly or indirectly, which also makes it newsworthy under the “impact” news value.

“Prominence” is a bit tougher, but there’s a case to make in the fact that voter ID is at the forefront of public policy debates in North Carolina.

There’s a “novelty” argument in the fact that a judge struck down a constitutional amendment voters approved by, basically, saying the legislature was unconstitutional because of gerrymandered districts. There’s an argument in favor of “conflict” for the same reason.

And, while the ruling happened Friday, it’s on our front page because of its strong case for being newsworthy under other items.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com.

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