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Stories Undone: why some stories don’t get published

Bilbo Poynter

One of the things I said I’d do with this column is to help explain why it is that some stories don’t get developed by news organizations. I can do this from my perspective in the news media, mostly as an investigative researcher and journalist and even news manager (i.e. ‘filter’). Like anyone, I tend to think about what it is I do for a living, and so  also draw on my observations of an industry I am part of. But like all of us, I am probably still a news consumer first, dependent on other news producers to reveal the world to me. Increasingly, however, this last point is becoming less important as the consumers of news themselves become the witnesses and the recorders of events who are able to push their stories out there.

My favourite type of investigative reporting is the kind that also explains a process or phenomenon that many people experience—or perhaps better put, withstand—without realizing its newsworthiness. As Thoreau famously wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

This takes imagination on the part of the journalist-witness to realize the news worthiness of a common experience. Within a typical newsroom environment this initiates a sequence of events where the idea gets kicked up the chain to be scrutinized by successive news managers (“filters”) before it can be pursued, let alone produced. Each time up it’s getting further away from the common experience, and less likely to see the light of day. Think of the example of pushing pennies up a hill—only you start out with the million-dollar idea and at the top you’re left with the pennies.

When this does get done it can be incisive explanatory journalism at its best. My ready example is New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin’s “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez”.  In it, Breslin tells the story of Gutierrez, a 21-year-old undocumented worker, after he dies on a construction site in Brooklyn. Breslin follows Gutierrez’s path from Mexico to that construction site, and what role the city, state, and even global politics played in his life and untimely death. It’s a refreshing offering from shelves crowded with volumes on great men, great men at war, great men in repose, and so on.

Breslin also won a Pulitzer-Prize for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination. When the national press corps zigged Breslin zagged by finding the gravedigger at the cemetary alone at the hole that would soon be filled with the president. He asked the gravedigger how he felt.

I’d like to see more stories like these in Canada.

A couple of years ago The Hamilton Spectator began to examine, over two series, poverty in the steel city. They examined, with the help of a health mapping expert, life outcomes based on different areas of the city. Code Red was able to demonstrate that if you lived in affluent areas of the city you were likely to have graduated university and not rely on the health care system as much for preventable ailments related to poverty and stress (such as hyper tension and low-birth weights), while these outcomes were pervasive in poor areas. Well duh, right? Thing is, there are many news managers who would never have given the green light to this, but the result was to prove—in fact—that this was the case, and that this materially shaped your life in the city depending on where you lived. We are, after all, in the fact business, and hopefully, the solution-seeking business. It’s not enough to dismiss the newsworthiness of a story simply because we feel everyone knows it’s true.

I’m always amazed at how many reports treat poverty issues like a tour guide treats the orangutans at the zoo, when increasingly the reporters themselves are in precarious work.

There is a lot of talk these days of sovereign debt, debt default and household debt, but what I’d like to see is a thorough examination of the credit trap many Canadians find themselves in. And I don’t mean people in Toronto lakeshore condos who’ve maxed out their credit cards; I mean the vast number of people who can’t get out from under unpaid bills because they’re out of options. Marketplace did look at the rules governing the debt collection industry. As the piece pointed out, government is one of the biggest users of these agencies—so how can they be relied on to oversee its practises? How much does the federal government, for instance, make a year selling off our debts to the collection agencies? Do they record a loss? How do they enforce the rules that govern collection agencies?

The PostMedia chain ran a single article in March on how the federal government was considering writing off $300-million in student loans. This seems huge, and in light of recent events in Montreal, topical. But I haven’t seen anything on this since. I know at the time the Canadian Federation of Students didn’t know anything about it, or the Opposition NDP.

Does anyone know anything more about this, or any of the topics mentioned here? Get at me @StoriesUndone.

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