As a news junkie and former member of the Fourth Estate, I’ve always had a fascination not just with the actual news, but how it is presented. For example, as long as I can remember, rule no. 1 of the newspaper and TV game was Biggest Story Leads. Whether it happened in your backyard or thousands of miles away, the Top Story was the one that lead, either on the front page of the paper or topping the evening newscast.
Those were the days. Today, the biggest story of the day is regularly bumped to the inside of the paper, or later in the newscast, for whatever local news can be dredged up. It doesn’t matter anymore if there is local news worthy of leading the newscast or topping the front page. Local — no matter how trivial — becomes the top story.
Last week, for example, when the military tossed out the democratically-elected government of Egypt (just don’t call it a ‘coup’), the Edmonton Journal dumped the story on page A15. This is stupid news judgement, but marginally forgivable, in that Egypt is thousands of miles away. But the coverage of the Lac-Megantic disaster on the weekend was buried by the unforgivably parochial attitudes of the local news professionals.
On Saturday, I checked out the supper hour newscasts on Global and CTV Edmonton. Not only did neither station lead with what was unquestionably the biggest story of the day, the Lac-Megantic story didn’t make the top three items. On one channel (I forget which) a soft feature about sand castle building in Edmonton got priority. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes into the newscast that the story of the disaster — with its extraordinary, made-for-TV-news images of exploding fireballs —finally got a mention.
Monday’s Edmonton Journal (which has become so localized, it should call itself the Edmonton Only Journal) found a space on the front page for a backgrounder on the disaster, but the top story — the TOP STORY — was an item about how few people are getting flu vaccines these days. Also on the front page, a story about fur trapper who’s making a nice living. The Lac-Megantic story? Page A7, well behind soft local features like one about a local guy who does tours of the river valley plant life. The choice of photos gave no sense of the scale of the disaster (check these pictures out from The Atlantic.)
On the Monday newscasts, Global finally came to their senses and led with the story. CTV Edmonton, not so much. A local story about solders going to Afghanistan (I think; it was so trivial, I’ve already forgotten it), a bunch of other local and/or Alberta stuff, even a story on a kitten tossed into a dumpster (seriously) got priority. Lac-Megantic didn’t make it until 15 minutes into the newscast. The death toll in Lac-Megantic is sure to be much, much worse than the five known deaths — dozens seems more likely — but that wasn’t enough for CTV Edmonton to dislodge kitten-in-a-dumpster.
Yes, I know these things are subjective. Nobody else is going to cover local news, so the local media has to do it. All I’m saying is that it’s time the local papers and TV stations stopped the navel gazing and started to use some old school, professional news judgement, and not lead with minor league local stories.
(By the way, the Journal has quietly announced that its delivery rate is rising to $28 a month from $14, which, considering the shabby condition of a once-proud paper, is about $25 a month more than it’s worth.)