This week, the MatadorNetwork, an online travel magazine and forum, said no to a feature video about Japan. It was, one could argue, a stupid move; that video, which the Matador editors had first dibs on, was later featured on Gawker, among other sites, and cost Matador significant amounts of traffic as a result. After all, in a 24-hour news cycle, news organizations have to constantly compete to cover an issue first and from the most angles. It seems to hurt the disaster victims as well: isn’t more coverage of a crisis inherently better than less coverage?
Not according to Leigh Shulman, an editor at Matador, who wrote this extraordinarily conscientious piece about why the editorial team decided not to run the video. In it, she distinguishes between journalism in the public interest versus just for the public appetite (“feeding the beast,” as it’s often called), and she makes the case that truly valuable news outlets show their value in what they do not publish as well as what they do. She poses the following questions both to Gawker and also to all of us who instantly shift our consumption loyalties to the journalist with something “new” to tell us:
What does Gawker hope to gain by posting this video? Is it helpful? Does it bring attention to a story that people need to hear? Is there any reason the people of the United States or the rest of the world need to watch a video [like this]?….Of course, as a media outlet, we at Matador cannot simply ignore major world news events, but what is the best way to cover them?
It is a question that is increasingly relevant as news outlets juggle their bottom lines against their time lines. When push comes to shove, what sets one cable station apart from another? The answer is too often the “spin” that it applies to a situation (hi, MSNBC and Fox!) rather than the ethics behind its efforts to publicize certain events in the first place. Is it appropriate for a site to pick up a story just because “everyone else is talking about it,” even if that site didn’t want to say anything about it the first time around? Fallout from a Politico expose on issues like how much Sarah Palin’s election wardrobe cost ended up leading to front page NYTimes articles, but should the NYTimes instead have put its foot down and refused to cover “unproductive” topics in the civic sphere? Should we have different expectations for what, say, Gawker will print compared to the Wall Street Journal?
Some may argue that this a futile, passe discussion regardless, because the Internet and social media have taken away the traditional media’s role as the bestowers of “newsworthiness.” I disagree. According to a pilot portion of a 2010 Pew study of urban news ecosystems, eight out of ten “news” stories simply repackaged previously published information and the reporting that did exist was driven heavily by the traditional media. In that regard, at least, the TPM still holds a lot of power. The question instead is what will it decide to do – and NOT do – with that power in the wake of disaster.