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What top-10 lists say about the people who produce the news

'Purely unscientifically,' journalists pick stories based on a mix of values

The Chron and Merc agree: The saga of the finger in the bowl of Wendy's chili was "big" news.

Every New Year, newspapers around the country borrow the old David Letterman routine to produce lists of the 10 "biggest" stories. But more than revealing what was significant about the past year, these summaries offer insight about journalists' news philosophy.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Steve Rubenstein and the San Jose Mercury News' Scott Herhold agreed on only one story in their top 10: a severed finger found in a bowl of Wendy's chili.

While this convergence suggests a preference for news with little consequence, both papers also nominated stories that affected our wallets and our laws -- the fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "reform" referenda, the San Jose mayor's secret deal with a garbage firm, and legal fights over gay marriage.

Grade the News asked respected Bay Area journalism educators to evaluate the papers' "top 10." The consensus was critical. Such lists are "hackneyed," "unimpressive," even "a disservice" -- when reporters don't adequately explain the criteria they use to decide among stories.

The table below shows the choices published in the region’s two largest newspapers.

The Chronicle
(local and state):
The Mercury News' Scott Herhold
(local):
  1. Governor's failed special election last fall
  2. Resignation of Secretary of State Kevin Shelley
  3. Woman finds human finger in bowl of Wendy's chili
  4. BALCO sports steroids investigation
  5. Execution of gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams
  6. Political agreement about the rebuilding of the Bay Bridge
  7. Scandal over high compensation at the University of California
  8. Declaration of California's marriage law as unconstitutional
  9. Death of a boy attacked by a pit bull
  10. Departure of Archbishop William Levada to Rome
  1. Charities respond to Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina
  2. Woman finds human finger in bowl of Wendy's chili
  3. Google's rising fortunes, fame and influence
  4. A 2-year-old struck by a train in November
  5. Opening of a new $382 million city hall in San Jose
  6. Firing of CEO Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard
  7. San Jose Mayor's secret deal with a trash company and a union
  8. Dying 16-year-old cancer patient raises $600,000 for a convalescent home
  9. Attempts to bring baseball and keep soccer in San Jose
  10. San Jose police officer who shot suspect in back acquitted

 

Here's how Mr. Herhold explained his choices Thursday of last week: "We're taught that news is when man bites dog, or defined by what you would tell your significant other when you get home. Somebody else could argue that news is Important. News is gossip. News lies in the big movements that slowly push ice across the valley of our imagination.

"None of these arguments sways a determined columnist," he wrote. "In my universe, a big story should have an element of unexpectedness, of grabbing us and changing the way we think."

Sally Lehrman

Columnists are traditionally permitted to follow a personal news agenda that differs from the rest of the news pages. But Mr. Rubenstein's list in the Chronicle last Friday claims to speak for the editors.

"Purely unscientifically," Mr. Rubenstein wrote, "editors of the newspaper chose the following top 10 local and state news stories. Readers may disagree with some of the choices, but here it goes anyway."

Sally Lehrman, a freelance magazine writer and college journalism lecturer, plays a leading role tackling issues of press responsibility for the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Ms. Lehrman said the papers' explanations raised more questions about the meaning of news than they answered.

What’s the purpose of news?

"If they don't explain their thinking a little bit more, then it does a disservice to what we're trying to do as news-gatherers," she said. "When you think about how people interpret the news and all the attacks on free speech and access to information, we really want people to understand what the news is and why it's important for us to gather it.

"When you emphasize emotions, like 'touches the heart,' it realizes people's expectations about journalism -- that we're not out there to educate people about the world, but we're after the shocking or the surprising and don't really have any greater purpose. If you're going to call these the biggest stories of the year you have to explain a little more."

The Chronicle explained the prominence given the chili-finger story this way:

"It seemed the entire civilized world was grossed out when a severed fingertip ended up in a bowl of Wendy's chili as part of an elaborate scheme to extort money from the fast-food franchise," Mr. Rubenstein wrote. He rated the finger saga the year's third out of 10 state and local stories.

The finger scam dominated other stories in the Mercury News, where it appeared on the front page 11 times in slightly more than a month. The war in Iraq, by contrast, rated only one front-page article.

Robert Rucker

Mr. Herhold concluded that perhaps there was a moral lesson to learn from the exposure of the woman's scheme to defraud a restaurant, which he listed as the year's story No. 2: "The case marked a triumph for San Jose cops but offered a lesson about the harm of urban myths. You didn't really buy it, did you?"

All this raises the question: What do these newspapers mean when the call stories "top" or "big"? Ultimately, since journalism is not a science, it's a question of news judgment. Decisions about what to leave out are important as what to include.

Absent from the Mercury News list were other stories whose impact was clearly greater, such as the planned sale and possible dismemberment of Knight Ridder, a newspaper company worth more than $4 billion that is headquartered in San Jose. Knight Ridder owns the Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Palo Alto Daily News and its sister free tabloids, as well as the weekly Silicon Valley Community Newspapers.

Given the subjectivity of the process, some journalism critics see the whole exercise of ranking stories numerically as pointless.

"I think it's unimpressive that we as journalists would evaluate the top number of stories," said Robert Rucker, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at San Jose State University. "Bottom line: Get back to investigating, stop doing the easy stories, and give us something else to talk about at the end of next year."

Over-covered or under-covered?

Chris Vaughan, an associate professor of communication at Santa Clara University, was also critical.

"I'd rate year-end 'Top 10' stories as about No. 8 on the Most Hackneyed Newspaper Traditions list," he wrote in an e-mail message. "The conventions of top-10 lists may well demand more specific accountings in the future. Top-10 most what? Most important? Most arresting? Most popular? Most ignored? Only when the last category is elevated above the others will any top-10 list stories qualify as news itself."

He suggested that in contrast to recapping the most-visible stories, the annual list of the top-10 least-covered important stories compiled by Sonoma State University's Project Censored might be a more meaningful read.

Robert Terrell, a communication professor at California State University, East Bay, said newspapers' tendency to dwell on news of interest to those in power tend to get concentrated in year-end summaries. What stories are missing? He suggested reporting on poor people, the involvement of local businesses in the war economy and lives of people in ethnic minorities.

"People of color are being shipped off to prison by the tens of thousands," Mr. Terrell said. "From DNA evidence we know that lots of them are innocent, not the least the people on death row. This would suggest incompetence and corruption on an unprecedented level. We don't see the journalists stepping up to say this."

Part of the reason journalists honor interesting but unimportant stories arises from the commercial desire to please readers, regardless of professional standards. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat recently compiled a list of the year's 20 most-clicked stories from the paper's Web site. He discovered that the most popular story by far was about a man who died from injuries sustained during sex with a horse. The problem, Mr. Westneat wrote, was that "a lot of the stories on the list are what we serious-minded media professionals would imperiously call 'soft.'"

Editors use these new technological measures of popularity. Last year Vlae Kershner, director of SFGate.com, the Chronicle's Web portal, wrote in a Grade the News commentary that editors find it hard to ignore page-hit data when determining which stories are "big news."

Other newspapers chose to play down the ranking game or avoid it altogether.

The Oakland Tribune ended the year recapping five major public-policy stories without attempting to number them: Ron Dellums' run for mayor, the "Riders" police misconduct trial, school reforms, teacher contracts and fights over where to put a sports stadium. It did, however, resort ranking of the year's top 13 business stories.

The Contra Costa Times' weekly community papers issued "year in review" rankings for individual cities, but the Times itself abstained, in favor of putting more energy into covering a New Year's Eve storm that caused massive flooding and millions of dollars in damage.

"We didn't have time to do a look back over the year," said Andrew McGall, assistant metro editor at the Times. "We were busy doing real news."

 

UPDATE: Vlae Kershner of SFGate.com let us know that he, too, compiled a top-10 list, on Dec. 27. But this one wasn't a reflection of anyone's news judgment but the readers', since it merely tabulated the stories that received the most clicks. The introduction noted that "it's not only the most sensational stories that people want to read."

 

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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