No More Bleeding Ledes, Please

Sensationalism is rampant in our consolidated news system, where scandal, celebrity gossip and violence (or the threat of looming violence) lead the headlines. Ever wonder why this is all we see and read and hear?

It isn’t simply that scandal and violence are all that’s happening in our communities; in fact, it’s the only news that companies want to cover. And they make it expressly clear to their reporters.

Take a look at the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach expressed with chilling precision in the submission guidelines of the self-described “backbone of the world’s information system” – the Associated Press. On their website, the nation’s oldest news wire describes their mission “…to be the essential global news network, providing distinctive news services of the highest quality, reliability, and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed.”

Sounds great. The problem is the AP’s editorial submission guidelines are doomed to produce mind-numbing, paranoia-inducing stories that are neither informed nor newsworthy. For example, here are AP Minnesota’s guidelines for journalists looking to pitch stories:

    AP Members Want:
  • Train wrecks, airplane crashes, drownings, fatal auto accidents (if there are multiple victims or unusual circumstances) and unusual accidental deaths;
  • Meetings where action of regional or statewide interest is taken or where a prominent person speaks;
  • Riots, demonstrations, strikes;
  • Major fires (involves loss of life, public disruption or destruction of a structure/site known statewide), explosions, oil or other chemical spills.--Unusual bank robberies (exceptionally violent, hostages taken, serial robber, etc.);
  • Weather news, including ice and hail storms, heavy snows, damaging rains and floods, record heat and cold, tornadoes; and,
  • Human interest stories. The odd, the offbeat, the heart-warming.
  • Don’t Share:

  • Non-fatal auto or boating accidents;
  • Motor vehicle chases, unless major damage or loss of life occurs;
  • Routine city council, school board or other public meetings, unless an issue being discussed at other meetings around the state -- such as state budget cuts -- is discussed;
  • Bomb threats (unless a MAJOR public disruption results), petty crimes, minor drug busts, minor or non-fatal fires;
  • Suicides or obituaries unless the person is known regionally or statewide or unusual circumstances are involved; and,
  • Publicity handouts, including local pageant winners, fund-raisers and charity events.

The guidelines for AP Ohio, largely the same, had this gem of an addition:

    Yes: Single-victim murders that involve unusual circumstances, a prominent person or happen outside the metropolitan areas, where murders are common. Offer stories on the incident, arrests, formal charges and verdicts only, except in high-profile cases of statewide interest when changes in dates, venue or charges occur.

    No: Routine one-victim murders in big cities, where murders are more common.

Read: no news coverage of low-income people and people of color being killed in urban areas. Tough luck if your brother/mother/son/daughter gets murdered in the city. Bor-ing. And pay no attention to those city council meetings – you know, where decisions are made about our communities; they’re not worth the column inches.

It’s no secret that the news – especially local news -- often leaves something to be desired. We rarely see coverage of stories that truly matter to our communities, or in-depth reporting that gets to the bottom of an issue, instead of just skimming the surface. And these AP guidelines offer an alarming glimpse into the mentality of our media system.

I think it’s high time we develop our own vision for what we want our news outlets to cover. After all, the news is supposed to be a public good, keeping us informed and engaged.

What might this vision look like? Here’s a start:

    We Want:
  • Coverage and analysis of local elections, state legislative issues and regional business, education and environmental news;
  • Journalism that holds our leaders in government and business accountable;
  • News that is as diverse as our country;
  • Reporting that prevents wars, economic collapse and environmental disasters, not just covers them after the fact;
  • Journalism that empowers communities and promotes personal agency;
  • Coverage of issues that are important to women and people of color;
  • Hard-hitting investigative journalism and original reporting on issues of community relevance; and,
  • In-depth reporting on local issues that is accurate, credible and verifiable.
  • Don’t Share:

  • He-said-she-said journalism (or "balanced reporting") that covers both sides without getting at the truth;
  • Horserace election coverage that is more enamored with polls and controversies than real issues;
  • Fawning interviews with people in power;
  • Press releases transcribed as news;
  • Gratuitous blood and gore;
  • Oddball human interest stories that teach us nothing useful about the world;
  • Coverage that reinforces negative stereotypes;
  • Time-wasting in-depth coverage of local weather conditions;
  • Celebrity news and gossip; and,
  • “News” shilling the latest consumer craze.

To be clear, I’m not asking the AP and others to water down their reporting to shield us from negative news. I just want quality reporting that reflects what’s truly happening in our communities, not the junk news reporters are told to sniff out.

I’m interested to know what you want to see in your local news. If you were to create editorial guidelines for your local newspaper or TV station, what would they include? Use the comment section below to share your thoughts.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good