The limits of the news peg

Last week, four of the biggest problems facing America—police brutality, gun violence, the climate crisis, and the right-wing assault on voting rights and fair elections; each of them interlocked with systemic racism—appeared concurrently in the news cycle. Each was “pegged,” in media-industry parlance, to a specific recent event, or events. Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis cop, was convicted of murdering George Floyd; the verdict came ten days after an officer in nearby Brooklyn Center fatally shot Daunte Wright, six days after police in Chicago released footage of an officer fatally shooting thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo, around thirty minutes after an officer in Columbus fatally shot sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, and a day before sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, fatally shot Andrew Brown, Jr. A recent spate of deadly, non-police shootings continued, in Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. On Thursday—Earth Day—President Biden convened a (virtual) climate summit and pledged to at least halve US greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. And Republicans in Arizona initiated an audit of presidential ballots in Maricopa County, entrusting the process to Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based firm whose leadership has suggested that Donald Trump actually won the state. He, still, did not.

The news peg—or the notion of hanging coverage of a broad topic on the narrower “hook” of a discrete event that just happened, is currently happening, or will soon happen—is a hallowed media principle. There are logical reasons for this: the news, traditionally, is supposed to be, well, new; often, news creators justify pegs with reference to news consumers, asking why they care about issue X right now. This logic, though, is not infallible, as various journalists have pointed out over the years. In the 2000s, Andrew Revkin, who was then a reporter at the New York Times and is now with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, referred to the “tyranny of the news peg” as a “fundamental impediment” to environmental journalism—because “science is a slow, grinding process,” whereas “news is something sudden.” Last January, my CJR colleague Alexandria Neason called the news peg “a euphemism which masks the unearned power we wield, as self-appointed gatekeepers, to decide which thrills matter, and in what ways,” adding that it dilutes journalism’s ability to fulfill the basic need “to be surprised, and delighted.” What role, Neason asked, do journalists play in failing to “push people to care about things they think they do not, that abandon the flawed hierarchy of news judgment in favor of the interesting?”

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Neason wrote about the news peg while extolling the delights of Cheer, a Netflix docuseries about a cheerleading program at a college in Texas (and so much more). But her points about media gatekeeping power apply, as well, to the crises that are in the news now but will likely struggle to stay there—even though they are not only interesting beyond their immediate pegs, but enduringly urgent, too. The recent confluence of big stories about these crises is, to some extent, a random coincidence of the timing of events. But media bosses’ tendency to privilege events over trends is not a coincidence. Nor is the momentum that is generated when news organizations treat one, particularly strong news peg—the Chauvin trial, for instance—as justification to elevate related stories that otherwise might not have gotten as much attention. Absent the backdrop of the trial, how many of us would have heard the name Daunte Wright?

Last week, the New York Times reported that since testimony in the Chauvin trial began, law enforcement officers had, on average, killed more than three people a day nationwide. That fact, rightly, drew fresh attention—but it reflects a continuation of a much longer-term trend. Similar can be said of gun violence: some outlets cast the recent wave of shootings as having followed a pandemic-era “lull,” even though, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 2020 was the deadliest year for gun violence in two decades. Which stories cut through the news cycle, and why, depends on a web of factors. Race is a central one: shootings in marginalized communities often go practically uncovered on the national level, and even those we hear about filter through glaring disparities in coverage. (When a gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta in March, English-language coverage of the victims was deeply flawed, and it took a subsequent mass shooting, in Boulder, Colorado, to ignite a national debate about gun laws.) When it comes to the killings of Black Americans, the presence of video and social-media outrage can determine the extent of coverage, as Neason wrote separately last year. In general, what else has happened on a given day—and even the time of day, or time of year, when an event takes place—is a factor. So, too, is the dwindling of resources at a newsroom’s disposal.

Day-to-day news coverage has to be organized somehow; without any pegs at all, it would collapse into a shapeless mass of stuff. But we must collectively examine what we consider to be a compelling peg; often, assessments of what readers care about project what journalists care about, and who they are. And we should recognize that not every story needs a peg; indeed, much successful journalism already eschews them. Magazines—and, as Neason noted, streaming platforms—typically have more latitude to offer up stories that lack clear pegs, and many specialist reporting teams, newsrooms, and initiatives work year-round to keep a spotlight trained, for example, on voting rights and election integrity. (My colleague Lauren Harris recently profiled one such initiative, Votebeat.) Sometimes, a particularly outstanding story becomes its own news peg, sparking a conversation to which rival outlets rush to contribute. More routinely, though, the idea of the peg privileges novelty over substance, and neglects problems whose broad contours tend not to change, or to change slowly: Poverty. Violence. The climate crisis.

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If science is a “slow, grinding process,” it’s got nothing on the United States Congress. Lawmakers’ actions are considered news pegs in the purest sense of the term; their inaction, while much discussed in general terms, isn’t typically thought of in the same way. The four crises I mentioned at the top of this newsletter are all the subject of current pushes in Congress, from Biden’s infrastructure plan to a police-reform bill that carries Floyd’s name. Such bills often respond to a news peg, then become news pegs themselves, only to lose momentum—and their status as news pegs—as the event to which they were responding recedes into the background of the news agenda; nothing ends up changing, which in turn increases the likelihood of future tragic news pegs, and so the cycle churns on. News organizations taking a less rigid approach to news pegs would not, of course, fix American governance. But we have some power over the process—even if we might feel uncomfortable wielding it.

Below, more on the news, and newsworthiness:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Andrew Cuomo’s Bad Press

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.