Seeking the new and novel

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A verdict may be news but news is not a verdict

By John Bartlit

The current Age of Anger feeds on daily news that reports and receives public gripes.
Mainstream news is a prime venue for bouts between camps of adversaries, called “strategists.”  
The most public value of the medium, apart from entertaining joy rides or rant fodder, depends on whether its role is understood. What is news and how does it fit in?  
To explore news, I make up a typical, but imagined, news event. I do it to disrupt political habits.  
Any real event would distract from the subject.  Irresistibly, minds would settle on this side or that of the deed and its actors’ stereotypes instead of looking at what news is. Human nature is our problem.
First imagine that sand gets into some water mains in the gambling Mecca of Las Vegas. A high roller spots sandy stuff in his ice at Caesars Palace. He gripes.    
Imagine you are a reporter assigned to the story.  What do you do?
You may drive to the scene to size up what you can of the problem. To trace responsibility, you are soon making phone calls to city officials to learn what happened and how it happened. The top officials are busy with calls from other reporters, so you call officials lower down the listings.
One tells you that sand got into some city water mains. You ask, “How?”
She says she can’t say how: “We don’t know yet. The fault could be in operation, in someone’s mistake or intention, a design flaw or shortcomings in construction or maintenance over the years.”
You are a skilled reporter so you next call the chief of maintenance, City of Las Vegas Utilities Department. You reach a deputy, who says, “We don’t know yet what caused the problem. We follow the suppliers’ manuals for doing required maintenance on our pumps and piping systems. In my four years as deputy, we always met the schedule.”
Officials in two other departments make similar comments. Before the news deadline, you write up the parts you know so far.  
The heading on your story reads, “Officials Deny Blame for Sand in Pipes.” Seldom will headlines draw interest with, “Pipe Investigation is Complex: Inconclusive to Date.”
The next day you get through to the head of the utilities department. He says, “We haven’t found what failed in our systems yet. Every system operator gets four days a year of training. To cut costs, the training was done this year in three days.”
The headline on the second day reads:  “Budget Cuts Risk Water System Failures.”
The world turns. Each day’s stories report what is new and novel. This is why news is called “news;” reporters search it out daily.
After an event is first reported, the news tells new and novel aspects of it, called “angles” in the media business.
Headlines are little come-ons for the story. Headline writers are allowed six to eight brisk words to pull readers in without distorting outcomes. A bit of a trick on both counts, the headline performs a multi-dimensional task.       
All told, the news process reveals piece by piece what a working citizenry needs to know about. In this case, the issue is sand in the Las Vegas water supply.  
News is like a snapshot not a verdict delivered after the whole array of factors is settled and all facts sorted out.
That judgment is much too long, hard to read and slow in coming to be “news.”   
People see millions of news stories for every verdict that gets read. This great familiarity steers people to think news and judgments are one and the same.
Once people run on the wrong track, political strategists of every shade strive mightily to make the news be thought of as a verdict for their cause.     
News has the most value when its reason for being – its essential purpose – is understood for what it is and what it is not.
If news were understood the same way inside and outside the news business, so much the better.    

 John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air &  Water