News, in the public’s interest

By Myles Peterson

An old adage around the newsroom goes ‘‘what interests the public is not always what’s in the public interest’’.

For days, saturation media coverage has been afforded the fascinating story of a young soccer team caught below ground.

It is ratings gold, a constant drip feed of information from a tale that has all the makings of a B-grade Hollywood disaster film.

Squeezed between the coverage are the odd titbits from elsewhere on the planet; 100 dead in Japanese floods, famine and war in Yemen, trade wars and heat waves.

Not so long ago, editors in mainstream media decided what was important. They decreed what led a news bulletin or was splashed across a front page.

Feedback was broad and slow.

It came in the form of letters to the editor, weekly ratings and monthly circulation figures.

Today’s online media world is different. Feedback is instant and comes in the form of analytics and social media commentary.

As soon as a story is posted, journalists can watch the public reaction and track page views and the viral-like spread of a story through various social media channels.

Journalists no longer wonder how many people read their work, they can see it dissected in real-time statistical detail. How many shares? How many impressions? How many retweets? Did it get posted to Reddit? How many upvotes?

This is fundamentally changing how news is created as journalists alter content and style to maximise the chances of ‘‘going viral’’.

Recently, I sat in The News’ office watching a photo of a collision between a car and a fire truck on the corner of High St and Wyndham St light up Google Analytics.

The metrics were on par with a violent crime story, which also rated highly.

There was minimal information to go with the collision story, only a line or two. And the photo was terrible, a grainy image snapped by a passing journo on their phone.

Despite no injuries and the crash scene being cleared almost as fast as the crash happened, it was one of the highest rating ‘‘stories’’ of the week.

Is anyone to blame for this absurdity? Certainly not.

‘‘Car hits fire truck’’ grabs the attention, however trivial the actual event.

That it happened at an intersection every Sheppartonian is familiar with, no doubt further lifted the interest.

But should we as journalists go in search of attention grabbing trivia to lift our hits and page views?

Should we change our writing style and our style of writing headlines to become as suggestive as possible?

You will never believe the answer.

We already are.

You can see the effect spreading from the Buzzfeeds and Daily Mails, infecting former bastions of credibility such as The Age, even the ABC.

But whatever excites and rates and ‘‘goes viral’’, journalists still have a duty to try and report what is important, however subjective that term.

Corruption, politics, scientific breakthroughs, taxation changes...however dry these topics may be they can have a far more profound impact on the daily lives of the audience than a cave rescue or harmless collision.

We have a duty to continue to report what is important, what is of public interest, even when the public is not particularly interested — perhaps, especially then.

Myles Peterson is a News journalist.