There’s an old saying in the media business: “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” This pithy quote has been attributed to everyone from George Orwell to Malcolm Muggeridge to William Randolph Hearst. It’s actually not from any of them, and like most pithy quotes, the real thing isn’t nearly as catchy.
The closest thing we can find comes from a former editor who at the Chicago Herald and Examiner around 1918. He apparently had a placard on his desk that read, “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising. Whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.”
This much more accurate version may strike some readers as the meat and potatoes of the newspaper business, but it’s not.
Yes, many journalists have made their name by printing things powerful people want swept under the rug, and hopefully there will always be journalists who love digging into those kinds of stories. However—and this is a big however—it is not true that everything people wish to keep out of the paper is news.
A classic case occurred on Thursday, Feb. 10. Most of you will have read the story by now. Prince Albert police showed up at a home after being called to a family dispute. They took one person to the police cells, and left. A few hours later, they returned to the same home after reports of something more serious—a homicide. The victim was a 13-month-old boy.
Before the public knew anything about this boy’s death, discerning readers knew something bad had happened. They knew because the Prince Albert Police Service put out a press release warning residents they were at the scene of a serious incident on the 200 block of 23rd Street West.
Our newsroom saw the press release, wrote it up, and put it on our website. It was very short, and contained what little information we had—all of which came from the police. The newsroom then returned to the stories we were working on, and waited.
This rankled at least one of our readers, who commented on our Facebook page “A serious incident … but yet 0 (zero) information in the article besides police attending the scene. High quality reporting lol(.)”
Comments like this are actually quite common. Whenever there is a serious criminal incident, the public usually wants to know more, and they come to us for information. When they’re denied that information, some will get annoyed, some will get angry, and some like our friend above will find the whole thing funny. But why doesn’t the Daily Herald include more information in our initial reports about these types of crimes? Why is there “0 information”? Because, as I wrote before, not everything people want to keep out of the paper is news.
Put yourself in the shoes of the mother whose 13-month-old child has just been murdered. Put yourself in the shoes of the aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, and family friends. You don’t know it yet, but Thursday, Feb. 10 is about to become the worst day of your life. Who would you want to hear this news from?
Do you want a police officer knocking on your door to deliver it? Do you want a friend or a relative calling you? Or, would you rather be blindsided and read it on a newspaper’s website, see a story on the evening news, or listen to it on the radio as you drive home from work? Show me someone who says the latter, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t a serious person.
That’s why our initial articles contain so little information. Eventually, police will notify the next-of-kin. They’ll notify everyone else, and the train will start rolling. Then, they’ll tell us. We love being the first media outlet to a story, but there are some stories we should never be the first to tell.
I can hear the critics already. “Is that all,” they’ll say. “There are heaps and heaps and heaps of facts you could tell us about this case without revealing the victim’s name.”
That, my friends, is where you’re wrong. People can recognize houses on the news. They recognize crushed cars from fatal traffic accidents. Even just giving someone the name of a street or highway can send them into fits of stress and anxiety, and we haven’t even talked about possibly impeding a police investigation by jumping the gun with our reporting (which is a whole other column about a whole other nightmare scenario).
I sympathize with residents who want to know more. I’m humbled when they come to us looking for the latest news, but folks … please remember, the goal isn’t to be first. The goal is to be the best, and sometimes that means you’ll have to wait to get information about a breaking story.
Jason Kerr is the editor of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.