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Jeremy Boyer: Context matters with news decisions

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At any given time, you can go through a week's worth of our police blotter and find a few dozen arrests made by police agencies in Auburn and Cayuga County.

What you won't find are full news stories on each of those arrests. Even more rare will be a story that's on the front page of the print edition or in the top mosaic of stories at the home page.

As a result, when we do give extra attention to reporting on certain crimes, we sometimes hear from readers who believe it's improper that some cases get more coverage and more prominent placement than others.

It's an understandable observation, especially if you have a personal connection to the case that's the subject of a news story, but it's rooted in a misunderstanding about how we and most journalism organizations make coverage decisions.

We make choices based on a set of news values that include traits such as timeliness, proximity, prominence, impact, conflict, human interest and uniqueness. Those of us who went to journalism school learned these in our first class. Generally, we'll look for our stories to have at least one of these characteristics and preferably multiple values.

Timeliness refers to how old the information might be; we're a daily newspaper, so we tend to write about events and issues that have surfaced recently. Proximity means it's something that's close to where our readers are located. Prominence refers to the status of the person or people involved in the story. Impact relates to the affect a story will have on our readers lives. Conflict involves stories in which there is a debate or disagreement about a public issue. Human interest and uniqueness kind of work together, as they generally involve stories that don't necessarily cover the other values but are simply interesting.

So how does all of this relate to the police blotter and crime stories on the front page? The blotter is a basic piece of information that involves timeliness and proximity, but in a way that's limited enough that we publish it on an inside page and the arrests take up one line of space.

When the criminal case involves some of the other values, then there's a good chance it could become a story. Felonies are more unusual than misdemeanors (and, of course, a more serious charge), so we tend to write at least a short blurb on those arrests. Other criminal cases might involve a person in a high-profile position or someone with significant responsibility, and that level of prominence makes the arrest more newsworthy. An odd narrative behind a criminal charge could be grounds for additional coverage, too.

With all of this, of course, there's also the reality that applying this analysis to our decision-making process is subjective. One person's definition of prominence may be different from another's, for example.

What I want everyone to understand, though, is that our choices are not random or motivated by anything other than to present the most informative and relevant news products we can offer our readers.

Executive editor Jeremy Boyer’s column appears Thursdays in The Citizen and he can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer


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