Journalism 101: Little crowd equals big news, while big crowd equals no news -- right?

During my nearly 40 years in the news biz, I think I have heard the following question more than any other. Yes, even more than, "Why don't journalists get religion?"

The question is this: "Why do journalists consider some 'small' events to be big news, while other really 'big' news events are hardly covered at all?"

This is, of course, a question of news values. It's the old "What is news? Well, we know it when we see it" situation, with journalists trying to explain what is, frankly, an equation that reveals quite a bit about what they think is important and what they think is not very important. (Yes, you heard this recently in the Charlie Hebdo vs. Baga massacre in Nigeria debate.)

The tensions here frequently make non-journalists really mad. This, of course, leads us to veteran press button-pusher Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Yes, this is a man who rarely uses a flyswatter when a baseball bat will do. However, the following blast at The Los Angeles Times perfectly echoes the "What is news?" question that news consumers -- and many former newspaper subscribers -- keep asking.

Thus, let us attend.

Let me stress that the opinions are his own, but I share his views here because they are relevant to discussions about the credibility of the mainstream press and, thus, the quality of public discourse in our public square. And hang on for an interesting response, a classic letter from an editor in the not so distant past:

On January 17, a crowd of 15,000, many of them young people, took to the streets of Los Angeles to participate in the first “One Life” march, a demonstration in support of the rights of unborn children.
On February 1, 10 people demonstrated outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to protest the proposed canonization of Father Junipero Serra, the priest who brought Christianity to California.
Guess which event the Los Angeles Times ignored and which one it covered?
Across the nation, the Washington Post covered the Los Angeles pro-life march, and the newswire in Times Square highlighted it. But the L.A. Times effectively censored it, even though the demonstration was held one block from its headquarters. Its omission of this huge event, and its flagging of the tiny protest, are a reflection of its politics: the Times is pro-abortion and not exactly Catholic-friendly.
The non-event protest was the work of the ill-named Mexica Movement. In fact, there is no movement: there is just a handful of Christian-bashing, European-hating activists. In 2000, a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, counted a “few dozen members” who showed up to protest Elton Johns’ appearance at Tower Records in Los Angeles (he allegedly sang a “racist song” on the soundtrack of the film, “The Road to El Dorado”). In other words, 15 years ago this rag-tag group marshaled more activists than it did last Sunday. Some “movement.”
The few who protested Father Serra showed how low-class they are when they compared the priest to the devil and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez to Hitler. For good reasons, Gomez is well-liked by minorities, though his few detractors garner the news. Shame on the L.A. Times for profiling them.

Now, with that in mind, let's flash back to a famous 2003 memo -- printed by LA Observed -- by one John Carroll, who was at that point the editor of The Los Angeles Times.

Once again, let us attend:

To: SectionEds
Subject: Credibility/abortion

I'm concerned about the perception -- and the occasional reality -- that the Times is a liberal, "politically correct" newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss this.


Perhaps Donohue could send this letter from the editor of the LA Times to the current editor of the LA Times?

Once again, the journalistic goal is to show respect to representative voices on both sides of these stories. I happen to think that the anti-Serra protestors -- few though they may be -- are part of a larger story and worthy of note. But, again, why pay so much attention to such a small expression of public protest and then offer none of a much larger protest?

Yes, I know what the editors will say. One was news. One wasn't news.

Why? Because we know news when we see it.

Please respect our Commenting Policy