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Commentary

Balancing the commercial appeal of the Peterson trial with other news

Suppose Walter Lippmann were right: The purpose of news is to provide a picture of the world upon which citizens can act. Were that standard taken seriously, which stories would editors choose for the front-page?

To find out which they did pick, we took a ruler to the cover page of the San Jose Mercury News from Monday June 21 back to May 22 -- a monthlong snapshot. Looking only at articles written by Mercury News reporters, we measured which stories merited the most space on the most-read page of the paper.

With so much happening, you might expect close competition. Gov. Schwarzenegger has been wheeling and dealing. Legislators are thrashing out a state budget. School districts are declaring bankruptcy. Counties and cities are sawing into the muscle and bone of local government service. The Bay Area economy is sputtering back to life. Ronald Reagan passed away, as have local soldiers sent to Iraq.

But just two stories dominated the Mercury News' front-page during the last month. The former president's legacy and the trial of a Central Valley man charged with murdering his pregnant wife. Even when stories were lumped into categories like "the economy," "Governor Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature," "the environment" and "education," nothing approached the coverage of Mr. Reagan and the trial of Modesto resident Scott Peterson.

Mr. Reagan's death netted 732 square inches on the newspaper's front-pages, all in the week after he died. Mr. Peterson's trial accounted for 619 square inches. The next closest competitor was a topic -- all stories about the military. Including D-Day reminiscences, it totaled 262.

John McManus

By contrast, many topics that have a profound impact on South Bay residents' lives didn't crack the top 10. Editors displayed just 124 square inches reported by the Mercury News' staff about politics over the month. Technology/science claimed 74 square inches, transportation 72, health 37, energy just 14 -- despite threats of summer blackouts and renewed state efforts to retrieve billions from companies like Enron.

For comparison, we also looked at how much front-page space another respected California newspaper gave the Peterson trial. The Los Angeles Times did not run a single story about it on 1A.

Applying Lippmann's test

Because Ronald Reagan was such an influential figure in state and national politics and popular enough to win the highest office in California and the U.S. twice, you might expect big play on 1A. Mr. Peterson sold fertilizer in Modesto. He never ran for office, but was twice voted MVP on his high school golf team. He fished some.

It's difficult to argue that the picture of the world upon which citizens can act would be much diminished were the Peterson trial relegated to the local front, or even an inside page.

But news is a business and must make a profit to benefit anyone. Many are clearly interested in the Peterson case and that public curiosity creates a compelling reason for covering the trial.

For business reasons, the Mercury News might choose to carry news of the trial. But positioning it so prominently on the front-page swamps far more consequential stories.

A question of balance

It's a question of balance. Placing more than twice the emphasis on the trial of an out-of-town murder suspect as on the environment, the economy or ongoing budget crises at the state or local level is embarrassing for a newspaper ranked in the top-10 of American journalism. Both for journalistic and business reasons.

First, three concerns from the perspective of journalism ethics:

Questionable business practice

As a daily reader of the Mercury News for over two decades, it pains me to see a wonderful newspaper lower its standards in such a dubious pursuit of expanded circulation.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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