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?”
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.
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:
- Andrew Brown, Jr.: The shooting of Brown by sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, last week was captured on the deputies’ body cameras, but officials have yet to publish the footage; on Saturday, the county sheriff insisted that he wants to do so, and said that, pending approval from the state’s Bureau of Investigation, he will file a court motion today to have the footage released. Also on Saturday, the Rev. William Barber joined Brown’s family at a media availability, and also called for the footage to be released. “A warrant is not a license to kill,” Barber said, of Brown’s death.
- Arizona: According to Jen Fifield and Andrew Oxford, of the Arizona Republic, state Senate Republicans and Cyber Ninjas have blocked journalists from observing their audit of presidential ballots. “The only way for the press—and the public at large—to watch events is via nine cameras set up inside” and streaming online, they write. On Friday, a Republic journalist served as an official observer “but was not allowed to take notes, take photos or do any other work a journalist would do in monitoring a recount.”
- Covering Climate Now: Two years ago, CJR and The Nation founded Covering Climate Now, a major initiative aimed at increasing the visibility and improving the quality of climate coverage in the world’s news media. The project now has nearly five-hundred partners in nearly sixty countries, and just wrapped up a coordinated week of coverage on the theme of living through the climate emergency. You can review some of our partners’ reporting and find out more about the project here.
- A related debate: For CJR, Renee DiResta and Matt DeButts explain what’s at stake as Facebook’s Oversight Board prepares to decide whether to reinstate Trump’s account on the platform. (He was kicked off following the insurrection.) The board “will evaluate a key concept from American jurisprudence and journalism: ‘newsworthiness,’” DiResta and DeButts write. In essence, it “faces a question that has bedeviled newspaper editors for decades: If the public voraciously devours his every word, is Trump’s every action thereby newsworthy? Or should Facebook exert editorial judgement?”
Other notable stories:
- The Oscars were on last night and the ceremony, as the New York Times put it, was “surreal”—“a stage show broadcast on television about films mostly distributed on the internet.” (The ratings, which are due out soon, are expected to be “abysmal.”) Nomadland won best picture; best actress, for Frances McDormand; and best director, for Chloé Zhao, who became the first woman of color to win the award. The movie was based on a book (of the same name) about itinerant workers that was written by Jessica Bruder, a journalist and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School; Bruder helped Zhao with research, and some of her sources from the book appear in the movie as themselves. Elsewhere, Facebook won its first Oscar for Colette, a short documentary produced by the platform’s Oculus Studios, in partnership with the gaming giant EA.
- Per Steven Perlberg, of Business Insider, the Times is planning “a big push for in-house, personality-driven newsletters” to compete with Substack, which has offered big advances to Times journalists including Taylor Lorenz and Elizabeth Bruenig. In other Times news, Maxwell Tani reports, for the Daily Beast, that Bari Weiss, the former Times columnist, is set to launch a podcast project with help from Andy Mills, a producer who recently left the paper following claims of misconduct. And John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, told Page Six that the Times’s Ben Smith made him look like an “effete weirdo” in a recent column, and (sort of) challenged Smith to a reporting contest.
- Zoë Carpenter writes, for The Nation, that misinformation is destroying America, and asks whether it can be reined in. “The problem with the far right’s universe of ‘alternative facts’ is not that it’s hermetically sealed from the universe the rest of us live in,” she writes. “These universes cannot truly be separated. If we’ve learned anything in the past six months, it’s that epistemological distance doesn’t prevent collisions in the real world that can be lethal to individuals—and potentially ruinous for democratic systems.”
- For The Atlantic, Michael Waters profiles John James, who founded an influential newsletter to cover AIDS treatments in the eighties, and has now turned his attention to news about COVID drugs. “James is leaning into a notion that he and other veterans of the AIDS epidemic helped trailblaze,” Waters writes: “Patients can become experts on their own disease, and that starts with supplying them with the right information.”
- When Dana Kozlov, a reporter with CBS 2, in Chicago, wanted to interview a seventeen year old who the state of Illinois had detained in a psychiatric ward, she had to fight in court for the right to do so. Now the state’s Senate has passed a bill that would prohibit the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from banning children in its care from talking to reporters. The bill would also make it a crime to shackle foster children.
- For CJR, Joshua Carroll and Tin Htet Paing have more details of CNN’s “ethically murky” trip to Myanmar, where a team led by Clarissa Ward recently reported, with the ruling junta’s permission, on the aftermath of a military coup. Authorities arrested eleven people for speaking to foreign journalists; Ward said on air that eight of them were released, “but neglected to mention the other three, who appear to still be in detention.”
- Last week, a court in Hong Kong convicted Bao Choy, a journalist affiliated with the public broadcaster RTHK, of using a publicly available license-plate database to report on a violent attack on protesters at a subway station in 2019. Choy said, on an application form, that she would use the data for “traffic and transport related issues”; the form offered no option for journalism, which is increasingly under assault in Hong Kong.
- On Friday, Russia’s justice ministry labeled Meduza, an independent Russian news site based in neighboring Latvia, and First Anti-Corruption Media, a site based in Moscow, as “foreign agents.” Meduza pledged to challenge the designation, but conceded that its chances of success are “slim.” Authorities recently fined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the US-backed broadcaster, for failing to comply with foreign-agent laws.
- And Aviva Okeson-Haberman, a reporter with KCUR, in Kansas City, has died after being hit by a bullet that appeared to have pierced the window of her apartment. She was twenty-four. Okeson-Haberman covered Missouri politics for KCUR and was about to move into a new role covering social issues and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. KCUR hailed “her thoughtful, aggressive, and compassionate reporting.”
ICYMI: Andrew Cuomo’s Bad Press