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Commentary

Why no news is big news

Playing to public fears about a senseless North Coast killing may backfire.

There was virtually nothing new to report in the investigation of who killed two campers in their sleeping bags on an isolated North Coast beach over the weekend. But that didn't stop the San Francisco Chronicle's editors from making it the most prominent story in Sunday's newspaper. And worth A1 on Monday too.

The only news in the story bannered across the top of Sunday's cover revealed that the victims, a couple from the Midwest, had visited San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf days before they met their fate. They bought a cheap souvenir. They even snapped photos of each other in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

The Chronicle gave top billing on Sunday to an emotional crime story in which there were no new developments.

In a world literally exploding with consequential issues and events, how do these details merit center stage on the one day of the week when people have the leisure to consider news in depth? With nothing to report, the story should have gone inside under a headline like, "No leads in beach slayings."

Instead, the headline read, "Retracing the doomed couple's steps." It was carefully positioned to beckon through the window of newspaper vending boxes.

Its placement says much about what's wrong with contemporary journalism, and about news selection priorities at a paper that vowed just four years ago to rival the Los Angeles Times for best in the state.

This was a "buzz" or "talker" story, designed solely to capitalize on the fact that people are discussing these puzzling murders.

Let's confront an unpleasant aspect of the news business. News media profit from tragedy. Even though we curse rubberneckers when we're stuck in traffic, when we pass the accident, most of us slow down and gape. It's human to be curious about others' misery. That creates a marketing opportunity.

John McManus

Like the evil that befell Laci Peterson, the slaying of Jason Allen and Lindsay Cutshall has great commercial appeal.

They were young, white, wholesome, attractive and about to be married. Not another hard-luck story about a ghetto drive-by, these victims could be the average newspaper reader's (or writer's) brother, sister or grown child. The story rates high on the empathy scale.

Then there's the element of the unexpected. Both Christian camp counselors, the couple weren't the kind of young people we expect to die of gunshots.

And mystery. The couple apparently wasn't robbed. There was no sign of a struggle. The motive for the executions is as missing as the culprits. It's a real whodunit.

Finally, there's fear. A killer or killers on the loose. Perhaps someone who kills merely for pleasure.

On Sunday, the Chronicle played to that fear. For Monday's paper the Chronicle flew its own reporter and photographer 2,000 miles to a three-street hamlet in central Ohio to record the grief in Ms. Cutshall's hometown.

Obviously, the news media have a responsibility to report bad news. But how they do so makes all the difference.

Socially responsible journalism is supposed to inform us so we can act on the world around us, rather than manipulate our emotions to stimulate sales. Mind you, it's the reporter's art to use emotion, but only to make what's important interesting. There was no news here, nothing important to help us understand this disturbing incident or protect us from the next.

Yet Sunday's story pushed inside the paper reports of nuclear fuel rods missing from a spent reactor near Eureka, an investigation of how terrorists downed two Russian airliners, an alleged Israeli spy in the Pentagon, federal officials curtailing data about the performance of charter schools and a widening investigation into CIA torture of prisoners in Iraq. New fighting in Baghdad and Fallujah was relegated to page A7. The floundering effort to pacify Afghanistan didn't merit space at all.

When news media exploit our emotional vulnerability, when they intrude into private grief -- or into the sex lives of people like Amber Frey, who wind up in court as innocent witnesses -- they generate public distaste, a suspicion that they are cynically marketing others' misfortune for their own benefit.

Such cynicism undermines the credibility of a newsroom far more than the concern that an anti-war technology writer might bias a Mac review or that a letters-to-the-editor editor who contributed to a candidate might stack the page for his favorite.

Credibility means more than public confidence that reporters got the story right. It also rests on the public's perception of whether they got the right story -- the one with the information we needed, rather than the one that put coins in the slot.

The Chronicle's recent efforts to avoid speculative perceptions of conflicts of interest among its workers while executives' news selection priorities demonstrate an actual conflict between public service and private profit is like a homeowner calling in an exterminator to kill the ants in a house infested with termites.

This real conflict, between the self-interest of the news corporation and the public interest, threatens contemporary journalism -- and the participatory form of government that depends on it.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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