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Building good news judgment one D-I-Y lesson at a time

For most of my career, one of the most important questions bosses would ask about a potential job candidate was whether he or she had “good news judgment.” I’m not sure that’s true any longer. It’s not a skill that’s sexy or in immediate vocational demand, such as multimedia producer. It’s not a skill that’s easy to define.

Awesome news I heard the term constantly when I was starting out and very desperately wanted to have it — but nobody could really define it with precision. To be sure, my academic background was in theater and history, but this was even true for J-school majors. News judgment was learned through experience and osmosis, and probably not a new profane rants by veteran editors.

I did use the “tubes,” as the late Sen. Ted Stevens would say, to run a search for “news judgment.” But rather than “borrow” an academic discourse or a piece on changing tastes and values in the media, I’d rather wing it and come up with a streetwise and useful definition. But because I do believe in the osmosis/experience theory, it won’t be short enough to cram into a small dictionary.

First, let’s seek the opposite: Bad news judgment. This was on embarrassing display a couple of weeks ago when news organizations gave prominent and unquestioning coverage to an announcement by Amazon.com that it would create 7,000 jobs (not coincidentally ahead of a visit to an Amazon distribution center by President Obama). I wrote about a few of the reasons the “news” was lacking — both for Reynolds and the Seattle Times. But allow me to torture the wounded a bit longer, as columnists are wont to do, to illustrate news judgement. By delving into the opposite, we can discover the thing we’re seeking.News judgment News at 11 images

Editors who assigned or used wire stories on this announcement failed to ask basic questions. Among them: 1) What is the company’s hidden agenda (e.g., getting good publicity and possible lede placement on Page One on a slow Monday)?; 2) How big is this number? Not very measured against 12 million unemployed or the 690,000 employed in the warehousing sector; 3) What aren’t they telling us? In this case, a great deal: How much the jobs pay, along with the well-documented problems with working conditions at these distribution centers. Getting the answers to any of these would have caused an editor to ask more questions and be extremely cautious about running the story without more reporting, and certainly not giving it big play under triumphal headlines.

In other words, no disrespect, but these editors failed to use sound news judgment.

So news judgment goes beyond merely defining the news as something “new” — important, timely, unique, having wide impact and (sorry “good news” apostles) conflict. All those are important. But judgment goes deeper. It involves critical thinking, skepticism, analysis and context and the ability to set priorities about how reporting resources and news space (or online placement) will be best used. It depends on curiosity and a constant hunt for what lies beneath. Is the thing being pushed by a flack really news, and if so, how big? That “big scoop” may actually be a brief; a brief might conceal an important story. Tone, taste, fairness, accuracy and completeness all go into the decision-making process. So does play.

As I look back, my theater and history training served me well. As an actor, one wants to understand the many meanings of a script and what masks the character is wearing. As a historian, one is trained to question the reliability of primary and secondary sources, their biases, patterns and the concept of “confirmation bias,” essentially picking the facts that support a prejudicial thesis. We live in a state of incomplete knowledge. This is what keeps historians arguing. But facts are stubborn things.

All this and more make for good news judgment. It should never be used as an excuse for inaction, but rather for producing the best version of the truth we know at that moment.
News judgment thumbs up
In business journalism, news judgment occupies its own special place. To use a blunt example: So many times I would come in as a turnaround business editor and put a stop to such practices as metro ordering a business writer to do an obit on an obscure person simply because he had owned a business. That’s a waste of a specialist’s time. Our news can move a stock price, enriching or costing investors millions of dollars. It can give critical information to employees about their future and livelihoods. It should explain a complicated world to workers, investors, managers and customers. Also, businesses lie to journalists more than happens on ordinary beats. The topics are complex, requiring highly specialized knowledge to know what is a “red ball” versus a non-story. It demands a holistic approach placing an event into the reaction of markets, what’s happening in the competitive environment, globalization and costs that might not be obvious. For example, the triumphant merger might cost hundreds or thousands of jobs.

And I realize that after all this, I haven’t really given you a complete, concise definition of news judgment.

This is something learned over many years. It helps to have worked at fine newspapers, under excellent, demanding editors and surrounded by veterans whose work you see and brains you pick. That’s less possible today, where the veterans are liabilities to be laid off and editors are distracted by graphics and the latest fad. The invasion of newsrooms by Human Resources makes it less likely you will get a constructive ass-chewing. Your “self-esteem” has been built up and reinforced, whether earned or not. No offense. Some corporate giants denigrate the skills of newspaper journalists — why, we’re no better than a “citizen journalist” or a “crowd-sourced story.”

So for serious journalists, building sound news judgment is more than ever a do-it-yourself activity. It is further hampered by the tabloid-ization of the news, where Anthony Weiner’s weiner is “big news,” although in reality it is not. It is merely part of the expanding freak show that is America. Meanwhile, the real cost and background behind the Bangladesh garment industry is ignored. It’s not even a good sex scandal, which I am certainly not above (as opposed to this one, reported by Talking Points Memo, or a CEO caught canoodling a subordinate or lobbyist).

Here’s what I know: People are bombarded by more information than ever. And our survival depends on being able to select, report, write in a compelling fashion and place the most important and exclusive stories. How do we do it? Begin with good news judgment.

 

In 2014, Career tips, Featured.

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