NEWSPAPERS have to skip a lot of events and subjects in their news coverage. The claim of the “New York Times,” expressed in its catchphrase “All the news...” carries a qualifier: “...that’s fit to print.”

Newspaper space is limited and expensive, with cost of newsprint and production rising and advertising and circulation revenue falling.

But there’s another reason content must be restricted: to help the reader from being overwhelmed with information he may not need. Editing, which includes evaluation and display, aims to guide the consumer in navigating the swampland of facts and data. A virtue that remains a major strength of the papers over new media.

Inevitably, some stories don’t see print, with editors as gatekeepers who decide what will get out and reach the audience.

Not known to many readers is the volume of stories and photographs filed by journalists that don’t get published. (Papers’ online editions, which technically have vast amounts of space, often carry the same or even shorter versions of the hard-copy version.)

Clash on evaluation

And except on stories that are “big and sensational,” even editors in competing publications disagree on which stories to print on Page 1, what to hype up or bury inside the paper.

Editors choose what to publish and what to put off, store, or dump. Rule of thumb is to use first the materials that are “fresh, important and interesting” (translation: stories that sell). Editors are influenced, of course, by their paper’s format and editorial-business strategy and, in large measure, by the chief editor’s preferences (shaped in turn by education and training, experience, and personal beliefs and biases).

Views of editors and reporters in the same news outfit often clash on evaluation and handling of a story. Cause of continuing tension between editors and reporters is choice of stories, with reporters questioning editors’ wisdom and skill in selecting and in editing content. Most newsrooms though have internal mechanism in resolving editor-reporter disagreements.

Clueless until...

How about consumers? Readers at times complain about issues being ignored or not covered adequately in their papers. They do so privately among kin and friends, not bothering to relay the gripe to the papers. Who else, outside journalism classrooms, question editorial decisions? (President Aquino was a singular exception.) How many consumers write letters to editors? Even social media scarcely talks on the matter of publications missing important stories.

Yet, come to think of it, audiences don’t know what their papers have missed until scandal or tragedy has struck. The pork barrel scandal told readers how their papers failed to cover release and spending of huge amounts of public funds to legislators through bogus NGOs despite rampant talk about senators and House members making money from allocations. The Mamasapano tragedy told readers how no reporting was done on Alan Purisima still actively doing his job after he was suspended and on the elite police Special Action Force and its operations.

In college, it’s called preventive journalism: reporting about street potholes before a resident gets killed by falling into one.

Consumers’ apathy

There are other reasons for the seeming apathy of consumers:

-- Few of them have enough background on how media works and don’t know where their paper has failed. Even if they know or sense what’s missing, awareness of lack of media literacy squelches the impulse to speak out.

-- Most people don’t care enough to send a letter or text message or make a phone call to their paper; talking back to media, even now, isn’t a widespread practice among newspaper audiences.

-- Frequent responders, mostly in online editions of the papers, prefer to throw insults and non-sequiturs, even inane or senseless comments, on content.

Internet replies are easy and quick, requiring no serious effort at thought, just impulses triggered by built-in prejudices, which they write down and send off.

Filling gaps

We have seen how consumers may not be able, by themselves, to recognize what the papers ought to report and comment on. The burden essentially belongs to the paper and its journalists.

Readers cannot be blamed for not complaining or not canceling subscription when they realize they’re being shortchanged. But their right, individually, to stop reading the paper should be a sobering caution to journalists who provide content.

The paper, of course, that examines its gaps and quickly acts to fill them will be more secure with the trust given it by its audience.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com]