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A simple rule of journalism: It's not news until it happens

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 12, 2011

On October 12, L’Osservatore Romano posted an article with this revealing subtitle:

The following are excerpts from the conference to be held in Rome on 13 October in Palazzo Luchesi, opening a series of lectures called "Thursdays at the Gregorian", translated from Italian.

Did you catch it? The excerpts are from a lecture that was to be delivered on October 13. The article was published on October 12. L’Osservatore Romano was giving front-page treatment to an event that had not yet occurred.

The Vatican newspaper evidently found the lecture newsworthy. I don’t. (You can read the whole story in L’Osservatore Romano if you like, and form your own judgment.) But that is not an important consideration. Every day of the year, different editors assign different priorities to different stories. Those differences in perspective make journalism interesting.

However, the world of journalism does have a few clear rules. Among them is this simple precept: It’s not a news story until it happens.

Let me explain.

You might have a favorite political candidate. You might expect that, when he delivers his big speech, setting forth his program for reform, it will change the world. And you may be right. But suppose an editor shares your opinion, and sets out the headline: “Tomorrow Candidate X Will Change the World.” That headline is not appropriate for a news article; it is appropriate for a promotional brochure. The editor is engaged in advocacy, not journalism.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocacy, and if the editors of L’Osservatore Romano choose to drum up business for a lecture series at the Gregorian, that’s their business. But it’s not the business of journalism.

On rare occasions, I’ll admit, a journalist can earn a scoop by breaking news before it happens. If a world leader plans to unveil some momentous policy change in a speech, enterprising reporters will scramble for any early notice of that speech’s contents. But I don’t think anyone would argue that this applies to the October 13 address at the Palazzo Luchesi.

In this case, obviously, L’Osservatore Romano had an advance copy of the lecture that would be delivered, and the editors thought it reasonable to give their readers a peek in advance. That’s fair enough, too. In all likelihood, the lecture as delivered would not differ at all from the advance text, and readers of the Vatican newspaper would be well served. But we don’t know that in advance. There’s always the possibility that something unexpected will happen during the presentation: an angry argument that escalates into a brawl among the listeners, perhaps; or the unexpected appearance of a leading prelate who pre-empts the conference to announce news of a major change in Church policy. Granted, it’s only a remote possibility that any such “big” news story would break. But it’s not impossible. (And by the way, if it’s highly unlikely that a news story will develop at the event, is that event really a news story in itself?) Good reporters wait to see the story develop before they try to report it.

 

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  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Oct. 13, 2011 6:40 PM ET USA

    This reminds me of the story that back in the days when the Register chain dominated diocesan papers, the papers were printed in Denver and shipped by train to the appropriate diocese. However, if an event was happening in the time between when the paper was printed and when the paper arrived in the diocese to be delivered to the homes by mail, it was not uncommon for the diocese to write up the event before it happened so that it would look like the paper was on top of events in real-time.

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