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Opinion: Readers know best — or do they?

The definition of “newsworthy” in journalism is more expansive than you think
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence and rape.

As writers, we are taught to write with the reader in mind — to treasure them when they like our works, and consider their words when they offer insightful feedback, no matter how harsh the words may sting. However, in recent months, I have grown to despise a certain frequent comment that I’ve seen readers make when I read articles from The New York Times, The Guardian, or CBC: the insidious “How is this news?”

I first discovered the comment while lazily scrolling through my Instagram news feed. Sandwiched between a Toronto Star article on the US’ exit from Afghanistan and the tragic news of the collapse of a Florida condo, there was an article reporting that a teenage boy in Colorado had crashed his truck into someone’s pool. Luckily, no one got hurt, and the boy’s truck was safely towed out.

However, the comments beneath articles like these on social media are often littered with people asking, “How is this news?” It is as if they expect the journalist to ‘do better reporting’ by talking about something like the crisis in Afghanistan. 

Of course, that issue is important to talk about, especially as the Taliban have effectively taken over as if they never left power. However, at a time when every news station is releasing the same articles, I was relieved to have a bit of a mental break and some good news where there was no one dying. 

When I read the comments under the truck crash story, I was confused, because while the teenage boy in the story survived, it was nonetheless about a crash. But then I saw another article that had the headline, “Three women discovered they were dating the same man. They dumped him and went on a months-long road trip together.” I found the article entertaining, but some Twitter users did not share my opinion. They dismissed it as not newsworthy, despite the fact that it highlighted the importance of driving education and spotlighting supportive friendships over sleazy guys — and declared that The Washington Post was “out of *actual* stories.” 

Since then, I see these sorts of comments everywhere, and it is irritating. These readers don’t fully understand how journalism is what I call an artistic business. As a form of writing, journalists have the freedom to seek out stories that they personally find interesting or discuss an issue they have a passion for. Like painters, they must be allowed to explore their passions in order to put out beautifully crafted articles that do the topic justice, either by drawing on their experiences and opinions or by conducting interviews and additional research. However, sometimes they run into a writer’s block and may resort to writing filler pieces to keep putting out content. 

Also, journalism is a business. While some journalists can work independently, others work for a news organization such as the Toronto Star, The New York Times, or even The Varsity here at U of T. They can come up with their own pitches, but sometimes, the senior editor requests certain topics: some cover big topics, but others are localized filler articles. 

So the question is, why do journalists write these filler articles, other than to get through writer’s block? 

Firstly, there is not a lot of breaking news to talk about. I know it sounds wrong, considering our news feeds and TV stations seem to be putting out a “breaking news” story every second of the day. But if you really pay attention, you’ll realize that most of these articles are essentially milking the same few topics and are drawing them out over weeks, months, and even years until they are bone dry, and there are no more ‘takes’ they can make. 

For example, The New York Times recently put out an article about Amanda Knox, who was jailed for the rape and murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher, but was acquitted in 2007 due to a number of flaws in the investigation. According to the article, Knox is now a mother and experiences what the journalist Jessica Bennett describes as a “cultural purgatory” while trying to live her new life. 

While this well-written article isn’t exactly a filler, it follows up on an old story that happened 14 years ago and was considered ‘cold’ for years until the news of the birth of Knox’s daughter reignited it. Hence, even the biggest and most reputable news outlets may turn to updates on old stories as opposed to constantly finding new ones.

Secondly, having your Instagram feeds flooded with nothing but bad news that screams the end of the world and the death of human decency drowns you emotionally and mentally to the point that you may consider ending it all for peace of mind. 

You might be reading this and may agree with me, or you may feel personally attacked by it, but I will reassure you that I agree that the reader is important in terms of effectively communicating. They are the ones that bring meaning to the words on the page that used to be a random thought in a person’s brain. I just hope that we give journalists a little bit of respect for spending their time writing and informing us of the news. 

And, hey, if you don’t like the news you’re consuming, I strongly encourage you to pick up a pen and give it a try. If the work gives you a splitting headache, you’re better off leaving it to the professionals. But who knows? You might be the next upcoming journalist writing about your passion in the big city — it worked for me.

Catherine Dumé is a third-year political science, writing & rhetoric, and history student. Dumé is the online editor of the Innis Herald and the president of the University of Toronto Accessibility Awareness Club.