‘Man bites dog,’ or: What makes it news?
One of my favorite books is “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” by former Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff.
At one point in the book, LeDuff describes a dead man found frozen in a block of ice at the bottom of a flooded elevator shaft in one of the city’s many gutted, vacant buildings.
LeDuff wrote a column criticizing the city because it took days for anyone to come recover the body. Too many fires in the Motor City, with too few firefighters.
LeDuff describes the angry backlash he received from people who accused him of further harming the city’s image.
They told him to instead write about the good teachers, volunteers, parents, activists and public employees working hard to make the city a better place.
There are great Detroiters doing great things, LeDuff answered to his critics, “But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.”
Journalism serves all kinds of purposes.
There are trade publications and union newsletters to fill you in on the happenings of businesses and organizations.
There are sports channels to show you live games. There are features magazines on art and car repair and guns and teen celebrities.
But our founding fathers didn’t write the First Amendment to protect those things. They wrote it to protect journalists’ right to tell you what the government doesn’t want you to know.
One of newspapers oldest idioms is this: “Dog bites man? That’s not news. Man bites dog? Now, that’s news!”
That dumbed-down version of a statement attributed (depending on who you ask) to either British newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth or New York Sun editor John B. Bogart is essentially saying news is supposed to tell you what’s broken and topsy-turvy in this world, so you can know what needs fixing.
Newspapers put on their front pages stories about murders, hospitals penalized for infection rates, and public officials being arrested, not to celebrate those things, but so you know about them and can decide for yourself if something needs to change.
The government is sure to tell you when it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing, when they’re spending taxes efficiently and launching new programs to help people. That’s especially true today, when every government agency has its own website and social media accounts.
But, very often, no one except a journalist will tell you when things fail to work the way they’re supposed to.
Journalism also aims to record the community for history, and that includes donations to nonprofits and dedicated volunteers and teachers who receive awards and all that.
And that’s why newspapers, when money was flush, included pages or sometimes entire sections dedicated to the arts, lifestyles, churches and nonprofits (I’m proud to work for a newspaper that still prints all those things — and at a bargain 50 cents for a daily copy, no less!).
And that is why, though LeDuff criticized the slow response of Detroit emergency personnel when somebody’s son was frozen in a block of ice, he also spent a day riding with firefighters so he could report on the thankless work they do trying to keep the city from burning.
But, when money runs lean and you have to start prioritizing, you have to remember why James Madison forbid his government from abridging the freedom of the press.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.