What’s news? What’s not?

Scott Swanson

Covering news can be complicated in today’s world, in which much of the population is dialed in to constant stimulation and instant gratification.

This, of course, has resulted in the development of multi-tasking skills as we traverse the terrain, dodging cars while playing games or catching up on news flashes.

It also keeps news organizations, particularly TV stations, scrambling to get the latest “breaking story” on their websites, if not the air.

I was reminded of that as I watched a TV news program out of Portland last week and learned that SWEET HOME SCHOOLS HAVE REPORTED TWO (count ’em) CASES OF NOROVIRUS!!!

But when we started checking around to determine how much of a threat we were facing, the response was more “huh?”

As related in our story on page 1, an outbreak of norovirus among students and teachers prompted closure of Albany schools in late November, which, now that we think about it, happened also to be a day or two before a scheduled Thanksgiving break. Then, as the TV stations seriously, but slightly breathlessly, reported, other schools around the Northwest closed after too many people got sick.

Wow. This must be bad.

Particularly when reporters soberly added that “Sweet Home had reported two cases.”

We started looking into it a little deeper. We were relieved to learn that norovirus isn’t some new superbug.

Technically, we’ve learned, norovirus is not the flu – really more like food poisoning, but we’ll leave those details for others to explain. Besides, the people who have it (or the parents of kids who do) probably don’t really care that it should be called.

Fact is, though, the way the news spread on this thing reminded me a lot of the bug itself.

Covering news is a business in which there aren’t a lot of parameters. There are a lot of gray areas, in which journalists have to decide how to proceed.

Is this news? Big news?

A lot of times, the reporter (and editors) may not really know a whole lot about the situation going in, which requires really quick learning. That’s particularly true when the reporter is supposed to be live on camera in five minutes.

Frankly, I have to admit I was a little unclear about what, exactly, “norovirus” was before we got into this story, since I didn’t go to medical school and I don’t spend considerable time reading medical websites.

On top of that, we have today’s world of instant and constant information flow. People want details – even if they aren’t accurate. See Facebook.

I remember recently posting a photo of a wreck on a local highway.

When we are at accident scenes, we usually don’t badger the responding rescue crews for details. We’re a weekly newspaper and we usually can call someone later, once the dust has settled, to determine what really happened.

We’re very careful to report only what we know to be accurate – at least information from a knowledgeable and reliable sources in contexts in which we may not be experts ourselves.

In that case, we didn’t know yet what had happened (except that no one had been killed, but it was a major thoroughfare and we thought we should alert the public that it might be better to take another route while officials cleaned up on the highway.

Well, a viewer took us to task for posting the photo without providing details about the accident.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched a movie about journalism that competition can easily breed excesses. That’s why news organizations, particularly many newspapers, have codes of conduct – rules that we’ve adopted to help us determine what we’re going to do to get and publish news and what we won’t.

Although I’m probably sounding a little critical in making some of the observations above, the fact is TV news is a tough business. Not only do stations face competition from social media, on-demand services, online advertising, etc., but they have to keep viewers’ attention. Their news has to attract viewers with short attention spans, which means they have to keep things exciting.

That’s why you hear a preponderance of stimulating adjectives: “shocking,” “sensational,” “amazing,” “horrific,” “heart-warming” – just about any superlative that’s available, to juice up the news.

You’ll probably notice that you don’t see too many of those in newspaper copy, at least not this one. There’s a reason: We’re trying to simply present facts, accurate facts, not what we think about them, on our news pages.

I regularly see a bumper sticker proclaiming “I Don’t Believe the Liberal Media!”

I’m guessing the “liberal media” the vehicle owners have in mind are institutions that use too many of those adjectives and who mix opinion with facts, which can be tempting.

But back to the bug.

We’ve learned that norovirus is not the Black Death, though it can be serious.

From what the health officials told us in our story, it sounds remarkably like what our mothers referred to as the “flu,” which kept us out of school occasionally too.

I’ve never been a big fan of the flu. Have some rather unpleasant memories of missing school under less-than-desirable circumstances.

It’s certainly important when you have it, but I don’t know why this story got legs and turned into a blockbuster, and in my opinion there are a lot more important news stories out there waiting to be covered.

However, my sympathies to all those kids (and parents) who had to live through this one.

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