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What Is News?
This is a post about how journalists decide what is “news” and what isn’t.
This is my first newsletter. I hope you like it and share it.
Anyone shaping the news and anyone consuming the news should understand who decides what counts as news, how they decide it, and what determines what they say about it. Here, I ask a few questions.
My interest in this issue was inspired by the gap in what mainstream media treats as urgent and what are the greatest threats to human safety, well-being, and survival. For example, air pollution kills *10 million people* each year and causes untold additional illness and suffering. It rarely features in daily news stories. Why?
Instead, daily news is dominated by “crime” stories. But even these are “crime” stories of a certain kind: they aren't stories about the many corporate air pollution crimes, for example. Instead, they are the kind of "crimes" publicized by police press releases, usually involving poor people. Much of deadly U.S. water pollution is also criminal, but “law enforcement” chooses to ignore it, and thus so do most journalists.1
Why is this important? What the media treats as urgent helps to determine what the public thinks is urgent. It shapes what (and who) we are afraid of.
A thought experiment: Imagine if every day for the last 25 years every newspaper and TV station had urgent “breaking news” stories and graphics about the *thousands of deaths the night before* from air and water pollution, climate change, or poverty? What about deaths from illegal foreclosure and eviction, carcinogenic products, or workplace safety violations?
Take the frenzy over “retail shoplifting” from big corporate stores, which has taken over local and national news since the racial justice uprisings of 2020. The same reporters choose not to cover the $137 million in corporate wage theft *every day,* including by the same companies whose press releases about shoplifting they now quote as victims.
The media’s frenzy has led to emergency actions by many politicians across the U.S. to address the supposed “crisis” of retail theft. These politicians are feeling intense political pressure to pass laws, assign thousands more police officers, increase police and prison budgets to tackle a supposed “wave” of retail theft from large corporations. These politicians and journalists project an urgency they have *never* shown for wage theft.
Measured in dollars, total estimated wage theft is more devastating than all other property crime combined. And unlike theft from big retail outlets, wage theft is *by companies* with money from workers, many of whom struggle to meet basic necessities of life. It makes people homeless and kids go without food and winter coats. It is among the most consequential property crimes given its impact on people meeting the basic necessities of life.
Or, to take another example, did you know that mostly fraudulent bank overdraft fees amount to basically the same amount of property theft as all burglary, larceny, car theft, and shoplifting combined? Probably not, because the police don’t regularly investigate fraudulent overdraft crimes and the media doesn’t report on instances of overdraft fraud by banks every day.
If it’s hard to grasp the scope of the news’s silence on the $50 billion wage theft epidemic, how can we begin to grasp the scope of the news’s daily silence on the $1 trillion tax evasion epidemic by wealthy people? In terms of economic loss, this is 1,672 times the value of all U.S. robberies combined.
Viewed in terms of absolute property value and objective harm, tax evasion, wage theft, and other white collar crimes makes much of the media’s obsession with retail shoplifting from corporate chain stores look absurd.
The same is true across public health, banking, manufacturing, employment, consumer protection, tax, and environment: the things that the cause the greatest suffering and threats to public safety—many of which are crimes—receive a fraction of the attention as what police press releases to reporters document as “crimes.”
Most people don’t know, because "news" didn’t tell them, that fraud crimes by bankers killed tens of thousands of people during the 2008 financial crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people become homeless each year because of illegal actions by landlords. Almost never reported each day.
Do you see a local news segment every morning on all of the illegal evictions, workplace safety code violations, or deaths from lack of access to health care the night before? Do you see stories every day on the billions of pieces of plastic spewed into our waterways that are making their way into the bodies and bloodstreams of every living organism?
So, who is deciding to cover shoplifting with “breaking news” urgency but not air pollution, wage theft, and fraud that leaves people and their children homeless and in poverty? Who is shaping what makes us feel scared and what makes us feel safe?
The stakes are enormous. The world is careening toward extinction level events and millions are already dying from preventable causes that most people in the U.S. do not treat with urgency. It’s hard to think of something more important than understanding the information-spreading apparatus that creates this gap between perception and reality.
Many people setting these agendas in the media are well-meaning people committed to helping people understand the world. The New York Times slogan is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The Washington Post: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” I think many of the journalists who work at these organizations believe some version of these lofty ideals. They want to help people understand the most important things about the world that affect their lives and the natural world in the most significant ways.
And so we have to understand how such a gap between reality and "the news" developed. Here are a few questions worth asking, and I hope you’ll think of more:
Do the social and economic circles of journalists determine what they think is newsworthy?
Are there habits and customs relating to where journalists look for information, who their sources are, who is seen as an “expert,” and who has the money to publicize things to journalists that determine what is considered news?
Are there professional incentives, racial and class biases, and jingoistic ideologies that shape *what harms* to *which people* in *which places* at *which times* count as important enough to be breaking news, or news at all?
What role does corporate ownership and consolidation of media companies play in determining what is covered and how urgently it is covered?
Who benefits from a world in which the greatest threats (in terms of the volume of news stories) are portrayed as the low-level crimes of the poor? Who benefits from ignoring structural inequalities and root causes?
What consequences are there for a political system of a society in which undemocratic police and corporate forces shape what we think of as important knowledge?
How can well-meaning journalists organize to change the culture of newsrooms so that the news more accurately informs people about the greatest threats to a democratic society, the health of the planet, and the safety and well-being of all living things?
Thanks for reading my first newsletter post. For further reading on this topic, the best book that I’ve ever read on the topic is called Policing the Crisis, by a legendary group of British scholars trying to understand how police, prosecutors, judges, and the media created a “crime wave” panic in England in the 1970s about “mugging” and “violent crime.” Sound familiar? Every word of it is relevant today, and you can read a PDF of it here. I especially recommend the chapter called The Social Production of News.
This post was adapted from a Twitter thread published November 26, 2021.
According to the Department of Justice, federal prosecutors charged just 23 people with environmental offenses in fiscal year 2020. In the same period they charged more than 23,000 people with drug “crimes,” and likewise more than 23,000 people with immigration “crimes.”