“Why is this news?”
That’s always a reasonable question. Answering it isn’t always easy.
In this instance, the questioner was Steven Maples, attorney for Tex McIver. We were outside the Fulton County jail just before Christmas. McIver, charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his wife Diane, was about to post bond and exit the jail. A gaggle of photographers was waiting, plus one reporter.
I had met Maples earlier in the week. As attorneys go, he seemed humble and humorous. My presence in his life at that moment might be viewed by many, under similar circumstances, as an affront. He didn’t.
While waiting for McIver to get out of the lockup and into the lobby, after a few minutes of amiable smalltalk, Maples pointedly posed the question.
“Why is this news?”
I rarely cover mayhem at WXIA, and I’m grateful for that. The McIver story was never my cup of tea. But news folk often get stuck on stories they might not prefer. As professionals, we have to embrace — and sometimes even defend — such assignments.
The circumstances, and the people involved, make it newsworthy, I answered.
The circumstances raise reasonable questions of Mr. McIver’s intent. The investigation raises questions of whether Mr. McIver was getting special treatment from the police.
Maples snorted. He also seemed to appreciate an honest answer.
I also felt he deserved a bit of insight into the unscientific decision making of our business.
The truth is, our audience becomes more engaged in stories like this when those involved are — shall we say — people of means. That was my diplomatic way of saying: When it’s rich folks involved, it’s more sensational. (I personally avoid the word “sensational” because it’s a term used to undermine the motivations of the news media, though I can’t argue with its accuracy.)
People are idiots, Maples answered in frustration. If they knew all the details, they would realize this shooting was a terrible tragedy.
I wasn’t going to argue about the intelligence of our audience. There’s a lot of hard evidence out there, especially on the internet, that supports his observation.
That led to a confession.
When I first started in this business, folks in newsrooms had to use their judgment and their smarts to decide what was newsworthy, I told him. Except for Nielsen ratings and circulation data for newspapers, there was no “science.” Many stories are obvious. Some are more subjective. We made judgment calls based on our experience and our instincts and our unscientific knowledge of what we thought the audience wanted and needed to know. We still make those judgment calls.
But nowadays, there’s actual science added to the soup: We can measure which stories have traction on the internet. The internet provides data measuring actual eyeballs, the type of which we used to only imagine.
Now that we can count those eyeballs, we use that data to help us decide what stories we should follow. The McIver story, I told him, has a measurable following that we cannot ignore.
People are idiots, Maples said again.
Unfortunately, the internet — with all its awesome measurability — is part of a problem that has gradually eroded the credibility of traditional, commercial news media. We have propped up material on social media as newsworthy. Clickbait sites that traffic in unsubstantiated (or “fake”) news have large followings.
People are also unable to discern the difference between news and editorial. Opinion pieces and pundit commentary gets lumped together with the product of those of us whose job it is to gather and evenhandedly present factual material. That’s not just an internet problem, but the stew of “news” on the internet rarely lists the ingredients.
As a result, news is becoming messy and a bit ugly — unless one actually takes a moment to define it.
Mr. Maples asked a question that ought to get asked more often.