Why is this not news?
An important part of being a journalist is deciding what isn’t news. Lots of things happen every day, but not all of them are worth devoting a lot of effort to reporting. But as social media makes it ever-easier for the public to share news media’s failings, it becomes more important for journalists to explain why they haven’t made a big deal about a particular story.
Case in point: on Friday, the High Court of England and Wales ruled
that the UK government illegally failed to publish details of billions of pounds worth of pandemic-related procurement contracts within the correct timeframe.
But what caused the biggest stir on social media wasn’t the ruling, but the fact that the news media in the UK didn’t seem to make much of a big deal about it. Sure, there were news reports about the story, but they didn’t lead many news agendas on Saturday. In fact, the story disappeared from the BBC News homepage in what some people thought a suspiciously quick timeframe.
Was this a huge pro-government conspiracy from the nation’s journalists to bury bad news? According to several such journalists, no. The argument from newsrooms is that it’s just not a big deal that procurement contracts were published late during a pandemic, at a time when civil servants will have been getting used to working at home for the first time, while overseeing unusually high levels of procurement for a situation they’d never handled before.
Yes, it’s technically illegal, the newsroom reasoning goes, but it’s hardly a big scandal. To the media’s critics, illegality is illegality, and it deserves a serious news response.
I won’t judge on which side is right here, but I will say that by quickly moving on from the story, news outlets are fostering a growing sense of distrust of journalists. It really does behove editors to be sensitive to these complaints from the public. These aren’t just silly people who don’t understand news, getting worked up about nothing; they are the audience, and they deserve respect.
That doesn’t mean editors should make a big deal out of stories that don’t deserve it. It’s just that when there’s significant outcry about editorial choices, they should run prominent explainers about why that hotly debated story isn’t being given more prominence. That’s service journalism. Who knows, maybe a few of the critics may see the newsroom’s side if they understood it.
Sometimes the best way to sell the sausage is to explain how it was made. Unless journalists ‘show their working’ more often, they can’t be blamed if a prominent chunk of their audience no longer trusts them.